There was no dispute about Ka Yang's seizure disorder. Police detectives who investigated the microwave killing of her baby confirmed she'd been having them for at least six years.
That was the easy part. The hard part is going to be for a jury to decide whether Yang was in the midst of a seizure when she put her baby in the oven last year and burned the 2-month-old girl for what the coroner said was about two minutes.
Yang's defense attorney, Linda Parisi, did not dispute at a Tuesday preliminary hearing that Yang might have played a role in the death. But Parisi questioned detectives about whether a person in seizure mode could do something as horrific as putting a baby in a microwave and not know about it.
Deputy District Attorney Chris Ore suggested there was no seizure when Yang inserted Mirabelle Thao-Lo into the microwave on March 17. The proof, Ore argued, rested in the multiple lies Yang told police investigators about how her baby girl died, before the evidence directed detectives to the purported murder weapon in the kitchen.
After the three-hour hearing, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon ordered Yang to stand trial for murder in the death of her daughter. He also refused Parisi's request to dismiss the special circumstance allegation that Yang tortured the girl. The allegation is likely to result in a life term with no parole for Yang if she is convicted. The judge did not set a trial date for Yang.
Before the argument turned to a person's capabilities during a seizure, the police witnesses and a forensic pathologist established a broad outline of the circumstances that surrounded Mirabelle's death.
Dr. Gregory Reiber, the Sacramento County forensic pathologist, testified she suffered burns over 60 percent of her body, the most serious of which appeared to be a radiation burn that penetrated her internal organs and "cooked through" to her stomach and small intestine.
The burns, he said, were "consistent with microwave injury."
Reiber said the baby endured "severe" pain in "probably around two minutes of exposure."
Yang, 30, was a married mother with at least two older children. She worked for a local architectural firm and attended Heald College, officials said. At the time of her daughter's death, she had been working at home on her computer, doing medical billings for a company and also doing personal business.
Investigators testified that Mirabelle awoke at 7:30 a.m. and stayed in an unusually fussy mood throughout the morning. They said Yang first gave the baby a bottle and then a pacifier, both of which Mirabelle spat out. A bouncy chair also failed to calm her before Yang held the baby to her shoulder and patted her back while still trying to get work done, the police witnesses said.
Detective Thomas Shrum testified that Yang's mother and brother-in-law told investigators the defendant told them she had a seizure "and she didn't know what happened after that."
"I see a white light, I see trees, then I have a seizure," Shrum said Yang told him.
He testified Yang also said that when she came back to consciousness, she placed the girl on a space heater. He said the statement did not mesh with a key fact the baby's clothes were not burned.
On cross-examination, Shrum said a University of California, San Francisco, expert on seizure disorder told him it wouldn't be impossible for somebody to have a "white flash" during a seizure as described by Yang and perform "automatic" functions, such as putting something in a microwave.
The detective's testimony firmly established Yang's seizure history. He said investigators documented her disorder going back to 2005. He said an examination of Yang's tongue provided more evidence.
"It looked definitely raw," Shrum said. "It looked like actually pretty serious scarring on the tongue."
Detective Hanspeter Merten, who interviewed Yang five days after the baby's death, said the defendant was taking medication for the seizures and her doctors "had to up her Dilantin" levels.
Shrum said Dr. Paul Garcia of UC San Francisco, likely to be a key witness at the trial, told him the more serious of two types of seizures was the "tonic-clonic" variety, which generally knocks a person out. The other is a "focal" seizure that can be so mild the afflicted might not even know it's happening.
Shrum told the deputy DA that Yang's history suggested "tonic-clonic" seizures. Under questioning from Parisi, Shrum agreed that scarred tongues as detected on Yang are more commonly associated with "focal" seizures. He said Dr. Garcia told him it would be "highly unusual" for somebody in a "tonic-clonic" state as reflected in Yang's history to perform "complex events" such as "pushing a button on a microwave."
Ore, in his summation of the evidence, suggested that in spite of Yang's seizure history, she did not have one last March 17. He said the infant was "being fussy, causing distractions from work Ms. Yang needed and wanted to get done."
Parisi argued that "there is little choice in the matter" for people who exhibit "automatic conduct" in the midst of or shortly after a seizure.
"It is terrible the way this child died," Parisi said. But she said the "horrific event" was not planned and did not result from anything other than a seizure.