Lawyers argue over who killed Sacramento 5-month-old

A prosecutor harshly criticized a North Natomas church Monday in her closing arguments in a murder case where the pastor’s son is accused of murdering a 5-month-old baby.

Deputy District Attorney Robin Shakely said the congregation of Natomas Life Ministries “is circling the ranks” to protect Wendell James Taghap, the defendant accused in the Oct. 31, 2012, beating of his nephew, Josiah Pineda, who died in a hospital four days later.

Shakely launched her verbal attack on the church in her closing arguments after six of its members in their trial testimony sought to raise suspicion about the baby’s mother.

In his closing argument, Taghap’s attorney picked up on the insinuations of the congregants to outright accuse the mother of murder in her baby’s death.

A Sacramento Superior Court jury is expected to begin deliberations Tuesday, after Judge Michael P. Kenny finishes delivering instructions.

Taghap, now 36, had been Josiah’s regular caregiver in the infant’s short life. The baby’s mother, Daphne Pineda, is the sister of Taghap’s wife, Soleil. The two women both worked as nursing assistants, and Wendell Taghap took care of the baby on the days when the two women both were gone.

Police and prosecutors say the baby sustained his fatal head injuries while he was in Taghap’s sole care. The defendant’s attorney, Robert J. Saria, said the mother had enough time the day paramedics were called to the family’s Truxel Road apartment to have inflicted the injuries herself.

Josiah suffered three skull fractures, as well as a severe whiplash injury to his upper spinal cord, pathologists testified. The baby’s death was officially classified as resulting from blunt-force trauma. He also suffered assorted bruises.

Shakely said in her closing argument that the unemployed Taghap killed the crying baby out of frustration of not being able to find a job and being stuck all day with the infant in an apartment while the two women were off at work.

“What do we have in this case? A child who was in the custody of Mr. Taghap and who cried and cried and cried and cried,” Shakely said.

Daphne Pineda moved to Sacramento from Minnesota in November 2011 to live with her sister and brother-in-law. She was several months’ pregnant at the time, the result of an affair with a married man, Shakely said.

The prosecutor said that when Pineda moved west, “She felt that scarlet letter on her chest” of being an unwed, expectant mother. Shakely said Pineda wanted to keep the baby, and that “they embraced her” at the North Natomas church where Taghap’s father, William, is the pastor.

“They extended love, acceptance and forgiveness to Daphne,” Shakely said.

At trial, church members turned hard against the woman, according to the prosecutor. They testified that she never fully bonded with the baby and that she sought to “foist” Josiah’s care off on the Taghaps. They raised further questions about Daphne Pineda when she attended the boy’s funeral with Josiah’s father, noting that the two of them were seen hugging each other at the baby’s remembrance ceremony.

If they took the high road in forgiving Daphne Pineda when she first joined their congregation, Shakely said the Natomas Life Ministries members – in an effort to save Wendell Taghap – “now want to dust off the scarlet letter” and “paint her as a harlot” because she held hands at the funeral with the father of her slain son.

The day the baby was hurt, he’d been alone with Taghap, an out-of-work computer programmer, from about 5:45 a.m. until just before 3 p.m., when Daphne Pineda got home from work, the evidence showed. She said she checked on the baby and thought he was asleep and that she took a shower and did some chores around the apartment before settling down for a nap at 5 p.m., with Josiah still appearing to be asleep.

When she got up from her nap at 5:40 p.m., Daphne Pineda went outside for a smoke, came back inside and determined that the baby was not responsive. Taghap called 911.

Shakely said Taghap had signed into the Internet several times that day, when he was alone with the baby, conducting job searches, listening to music, checking Facebook and even clicking on a pornographic website. Shakely suggested that the baby’s crying had interrupted Taghap and that he snapped in frustration, alleging that he shook the baby and flung him into a wall in the hours before Daphne Pineda got home from work.

She said a pinching bruise to the baby’s ear that was not present in photographs of the child in the days before his death signaled the action of a defendant who acted “out of rage and frustration.”

A “cold war” was going on in the apartment between Daphne Pineda and the Taghaps over the care of her baby, the DA said. In his interview with detectives the day of his arrest, Taghap said he felt “trapped” in the situation, and Shakely quoted from his videotaped remarks to show how close he came to confessing to the death.

“I don’t want the baby to get hurt,” Taghap told Sacramento police Detective Scott MacLafferty. “I didn’t want to put myself in this situation. I never wanted to do this.”

In his argument, defense attorney Saria said his client never actually admitted to the killing “because Wendell didn’t do it.”

Saria told the jury that in order to convict Taghap, “you have to say any inference that (Pineda) did it is unreasonable.” He said that while Taghap was alone with the baby most of the day, Josiah’s mother was alone with the baby for about 40 minutes – enough of a window for her to kill him.

The lawyer said she was stressed because she couldn’t sleep.

“I think the evidence shows that Daphne lost it,” Saria said.

The defense lawyer called Taghap “a loving caregiver” and showed the jury pictures of the defendant smiling while holding the baby.

Taghap “was not frustrated or angry,” Saria said. The lawyer cited the testimony of the Natomas Life Ministries members who said they observed that Daphne Pineda “was a reluctant mother” and that “she did not have a real bond with that child.”

Shakely shot back in her rebuttal that it would have been impossible for the mother to have inflicted the injuries that killed the baby without anybody hearing anything. Neither Wendell Taghap nor his wife ever told authorities, Shakely said, that they had heard any sort of ruckus inside the apartment during the 40 minutes Pineda was alone in the bedroom with her baby.