A Munster man was acquitted Monday in his five-month-old daughter’s abuse death, Lake County Prosecutors’ Office spokeswoman Myrna Maldonado said.

The jury deliberated for a few hours, she said.

Justin Harling, 28, was charged on Oct. 21, 2020 with murder and aggravated battery in Morgan Harling’s Dec. 12, 2019 death.

The child was “unresponsive” after he took her to change her diaper at the Munster Target bathroom on Dec. 11, 2019, according to court records.

At trial, lawyers offered experts with competing theories on what led to her death.

Prosecutors allege the girl wasn’t the same after Harling took her for the diaper change. After her death, she showed signs of abuse, Marion County’s chief forensic pathologist Dr. Christopher Poulos said Thursday.

Through the original doctor’s notes, field reports, emails with the original doctor and conducting part of the autopsy himself, Poulos discovered other older, unrelated contusions on the left side of Morgan’s brain. Those injuries wouldn’t be enough to kill her, but the new injuries she had on top of the old ones could, particularly the skull fracture at the back of her head that was more of a shatter than a linear fracture consistent with, say, falling off a changing table, he said.

Morgan also had bleeding in her retinas and optic nerve consistent with severe trauma, and the fracture at the base of her skull had blood in it, which wouldn’t have happened if she were dropped or mishandled during transport to Indianapolis, he said.

Defense experts testified the child was already weakened with bouts of RSV and pneumonia, in addition to pre-existing injuries. At the time, she was in foster care.

The defense rested its case Monday after testimony from Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a consultant and nurse practitioner brought on as a medical expert. She told Harling’s defense lawyer Joseph Curosh that the fentanyl dose given to Morgan at Community Hospital was “catastrophic” to her recovery.

Morgan Harling’s oxygen saturation levels were around 100% when she was taken to the emergency room. After fentanyl was given, it dropped gradually hitting a low of 58% at one point. Even as Narcan was administered within an hour, the child’s oxygen saturation levels never fully recovered, she said.

On cross-examination, Deputy Prosecutor Keith Anderson asked since the girl’s pupils were already “fixed” by the time she got to the ER, if something was wrong, before she got the fentanyl doses.

“That’s correct,” Johnson responded.

During a supervised visit on Dec. 11, 2019, Harling, Kailani Strickland, the child’s mother, and Strickland’s aunt, Jeralyn Kroll, took Morgan and her half-brother, 8, to Texas Roadhouse in Dyer for the boy’s birthday. Afterward, they stopped by Target in Munster. While in line at the self-checkout, Harling took the child to the family restroom to change her diaper when she became unresponsive, he told police.

The caseworker was supposed to be with them but had stayed in her car in the parking lot, Anderson said. Harling yelled for help. A pediatric nurse nearby performed CPR until paramedics arrived.

The child was taken to Community Hospital, where a doctor noticed “several contusions and scratches” on her head, while a CT scan confirmed brain bleeding. She was later flown to St. Vincent’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis where she was pronounced dead on arrival, charges show.

Strickland testified Tuesday the girl was “smiling, giggling” and “alert” at the restaurant. She had noticed a bruise on the child’s head, but the lighting was dim at the restaurant. It was clearer once they got to Target.

At the checkout line, Harling volunteered to change the baby. The girl was crying loudly.

Harling opened the door asking for a second diaper, since the first ripped. He opened the door again and asked a question. She went in. The child, on the changing table, looked “purple.” She later said the girl’s eyes were like a “doll’s.”

On the 911 call, Strickland told a dispatcher the child wasn’t breathing and it sounded like she was choking. Her feet, face and hands were turning blue. They went to Community, she testified, then headed to the Indianapolis hospital, but were told the child died 15 minutes into the flight.

Kroll testified she did notice a “big and yellow” bruise on the child’s head, which was more apparent after they got to Target.

She took the brother to the bathroom, then came out to see Strickland “hysterical” and on the phone with 911.

After the girl’s death, Munster Police interviewed Harling, who said the child was “gasping” and “changing color” after he had to change her diaper a few times. He denied she fell off the changing table. She was a “squirmy child” and “it was possible that she hit her head on the changing table,” he told police.

There was also a mix of old and new injuries including a dislocated shoulder, Poulos said, according to the affidavit. The parents told police she had a Vitamin D deficiency. That could make fractures more easy, but didn’t explain the multiple injuries or brain injuries, Poulos added.

Harling and Strickland told police both children were taken away by Child Protective Services when Morgan was a month old after they took her to the hospital with a broken arm. She was placed at the Carmelite Home in East Chicago before they were moved to a foster home, charges state.

Michelle Quinn contributed.


This is a developing story. Check back for more information.

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *