Judge declares mistrial in brain-injured baby case

Rosie Mullaley
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Crown must now decide whether or not to retry Colin Matchim

Kate Coombs walked out of the courtroom  in tears. Two years after the man she says caused their daughter’s brain damage was convicted, a St. John’s judge set the case back to Square 1.
In Newfoundland Supreme Court Monday, Justice Wayne Dymond declared a mistrial in the case of Colin James Matchim.

Colin James Matchim, who had been found guilty of causing his daughter brain damage, had his conviction overturned Monday in Newfoundland Supreme Court in St. John’s.

Matchim, the child’s father, had been found guilty of aggravated assault following a 17-day trial in November 2011. At that time, Dymond accepted the evidence that Matchim had caused August Coombs’ injuries by shaking her.

However, before sentencing, Matchim’s new lawyers filed an application seeking to have the case reopened and new medical evidence introduced.

It was argued at a hearing, which wrapped up in June. During the months of proceedings, the court heard complex medical testimony from experts around the world, all of whom offered their opinions on the validity of shaken baby syndrome and on what they believed caused the child’s injuries.

One expert believed it may have been a blood clot. Another said the baby could have had a predisposed condition.

Evidence could have made difference

Defence lawyer Erin Breen argued that the experts’ evidence was believable enough that it could have made a difference in the outcome of the trial.

Dymond agreed.

He concluded that had he heard this evidence, he may not have found Matchim guilty.

“Vast resources of time and money have been spent on this trial,” Dymond said in rendering his decision.

“No one wishes to waste further resources in time or money, but that is not the issue. … Resources, time and money are secondary to a fair trial process. …

“A fair trial process at the end of the day is the ultimate goal for every court.”

In throwing out the conviction, Dymond had the option of either allowing the trial to continue and introduce the new evidence or declaring a mistrial, which he pointed out usually only happens in judge-and-jury trials.

Dymond said he opted for the mistrial because in the original trial, he had based much of his decision to convict on conclusions he made of Matchim’s credibility. His assessment was affected by Matchim’s confession after he was arrested and then recanting on the stand.

“Should this court go on to hear the new evidence … it could be said the court was predisposed to Mr. Matchim’s guilt before the evidence was weighed at a continuing trial,” he said.

The judge said the cause of the child’s injuries was not an issue at the trial, since medical evidence was not disputed at that time.

Evidence from the trial revealed that on March 17, 2009, Matchim was home alone with the 3 1/2-month-old infant girl while Coombs, her mother, was out running errands. Coombs said the baby was sleeping when she left the house that day. When she got home about an hour later, she noticed the child was unresponsive and pale.

August was taken to the Janeway children’s hospital, where doctors immediately suspected shaken baby syndrome.

Tests revealed severe swelling to the left side of the baby’s brain, hemorrhaging and other damage. As a result, she had difficulty walking on her own and moving her right side. The damage is believed to be permanent.

Prosecutor Phil LeFeuvre must decide whether or not the Crown’s case is strong enough and whether there’s a liklihood of another conviction if Matchim is retried.

Lawyers agreed to bring the case back to court Nov. 1, at which time the Crown may reveal what its next move will be.

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