A Chico doctor and nurse accused of killing their 2-year-old adopted son must stand trial in connection with the boy’s death, a Butte County judge has ruled.
Superior Court Judge Barbara L. Roberts rejected a defense motion that asked that charges be dismissed against Dr. James “Peter” Yhip, a 47-year-old cardiologist, and his wife, Edelyn, 44, a registered nurse.
Each has been charged with murder and felony child endangerment in the death of Benjamin Yhip on April 19, 2012.
Defense attorneys had argued in November that the murder case should be dismissed because another Butte County judge already had ruled in the couple’s favor by returning the surviving children to their care. The defense team maintained that the Yhips, by prevailing in dependency court, should not be subjected to another legal ordeal involving essentially the same issue.
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Judge Roberts disagreed, saying the defense team met only two of the three requirements for such a dismissal under what is known as “collateral estoppel.” In her written decision, dated Dec. 27, the judge said that dismissing charges in the Yhips’ case could have broader implications for the court.
“If the District Attorney had to anticipate that every ruling coming from another court could have the effect of collateral estoppel, it would necessitate staffing all other proceedings with representatives from the District Attorney’s office to ensure all the issues were litigated to his satisfaction,” the judge wrote.
“This would not promote judicial economy but would create a litigation nightmare.”
Sacramento defense attorney Victor Haltom, who represents Edelyn Yhip, said Friday the defense team likely would seek review of Roberts’ decision from the 3rd District Court of Appeal.
“We respectfully disagree with the judge’s ruling on that (third) point,” he said.
Meanwhile, Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey called the ruling “the appropriate decision – the only legal decision that should be made.”
The judge’s ruling marks another contentious turn in the murder case, in which medical and legal experts are lining up on both sides with radically different theories and viewpoints surrounding the boy’s death.
Benjamin was 33 months old when he was declared clinically brain-dead at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento. The comatose child had been transferred a day earlier from Enloe Medical Center in Chico after he was found unresponsive in his bedroom.
The Yhips were arrested in July 2012. A Sacramento pediatrician who specializes in child abuse, along with a forensic pathologist under contract with Butte County, have determined that the boy likely had been beaten or shaken, according to court documents.
Prosecutors contend that Benjamin, adopted from Taiwan in November 2010, along with his twin brother, was targeted by the couple for ongoing abuse because of his many needs and demands.
“What we see is a child who obviously had injuries prior to the final, fatal injury,” Ramsey said in a recent interview.
The Yhips’ defense team has vigorously challenged the DA’s version of events. They contend that Benjamin was a weak and sickly child since he was an infant in a Taiwan orphanage, and that his mounting medical problems were misdiagnosed as being the result of neglect and abuse. The Yhips’ attorneys maintain that the boy died from a “raging infection” in his head, the symptoms of which mimicked some classic signs of child abuse.
The defense team recently was joined by attorneys from the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. The group, which has offices nationwide, investigates cases where individuals may have been wrongfully accused of convicted of crimes.
Among other things, the defense team is raising questions about the validity of a shaken-baby diagnosis. In recent years, some medical and legal experts have begun to challenge the scientific thinking around so-called shaken baby syndrome, suggesting that numerous caregivers have likely been wrongfully convicted of harming children based on faulty medical assumptions.
The trial is set to begin in April in Oroville, the county seat.