Billings woman appeals conviction in child abuse case

2012-12-28T13:55:00Z 2012-12-29T11:18:03Z Billings woman appeals conviction in child abuse caseBy GREG TUTTLE The Billings Gazette

A Billings woman serving a 15-year prison sentence for abusing an 8-month-old boy she was baby-sitting has appealed her conviction to the Montana Supreme Court.

An attorney for Nevada Ugalde argues in the appeal filed recently that the 23-year-old woman convicted at trial in 2010 of aggravated assault did not receive a fair trial on numerous grounds, including misconduct by the prosecution and poor representation by her court-appointed defense lawyer.

Ugalde was charged for injuries suffered by Isaiah Napier on June 11, 2008. Prosecutors said Ugalde, who was baby-sitting the boy, caused severe head injuries by shaking or slamming the child.

Ugalde denied the charge and claimed the child suffered the injuries when he fell out of a crib.

The case went to trial before District Judge Susan Watters in April 2010. After a week of testimony and about six hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Ugalde.

Ugalde's sentencing was delayed for about one year while Watters considered her request for a new trial. After denying the request, Watters sentenced Ugalde to serve 20 years in prison, with five years suspended, and pay about $1.4 million in restitution.

The restitution was ordered to pay for Napier's medical needs. Prosecutors said the child suffered permanent and disabling injuries as a result of the abuse.

In the appeal, an attorney for Ugalde said the woman's conviction should be overturned because of misconduct by the prosecution. The attorney, Gregory Birdsong of Missoula, said that if the conviction is not tossed out, Ugalde should be granted a new trial.

Birdsong states that former Yellowstone County Attorney  Dennis Paxinos committed misconduct when he spoke about the case before trial with a state medical examiner who had been consulted by Ugalde's defense attorney.

"It gave the prosecution an unfair advantage and denied the defendant a fair trial," Birdsong states in the appeal. "It led to a manifest miscarriage of justice, raising serious questions about the fundamental fairness of the trial and compromising the integrity of the judicial process."

Other errors that should result in a new trial for Ugalde include the failure of the defense lawyer at trial to stipulate that Napier suffered a serious injury. As a result, the prosecution was allowed to call 10 witnesses at trial to testify about the nature of the boy's injuries.

The jury's verdict "may have been based on emotion" and not the evidence, Birdsong states.

The appeal also states that a prosecutor was allowed to make an improper closing statement, and Ugalde's court-appointed attorney was unable to provide an effective defense because she was required by the state Office of the Public Defender to get prior approval for any expenditure more than $200.               

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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