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Baby Justice Rees died of exposure in Delta slough, pathologist says

Samantha Green, left, charged with second-degree murder in the death of her infant son, Justice Rees, looks back into the Yolo Superior Court gallery after a day listening to testimony Monday in Woodland.
Samantha Green, left, charged with second-degree murder in the death of her infant son, Justice Rees, looks back into the Yolo Superior Court gallery after a day listening to testimony Monday in Woodland. rbyer@sacbee.com

Little Justice Rees appeared well-fed and cared for before exposure to the elements ended his short life in a cold, wet Ridge Cut Slough in February 2015, a pathologist testified Monday at the Woodland mother’s murder trial at Yolo County Courthouse.

“He looked pretty good. He was a chubby, well-nourished baby,” pathologist Kelly Arthur Kinney testified, saying later that “environmental exposure” caused the child’s death.

“For this infant, exposed to those situations and that environment – he died because of his body’s reaction to the environment,” Kinney said.

The factors that led to the infant’s death last year dominated the day’s testimony as Samantha Lee Green’s trial continued Monday before Yolo Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg.

Green’s 19-day-old baby was found Feb. 25, 2015, in heavy brush and overgrown trees in the slough near Knights Landing nearly a day after a distraught Green flagged down someone on a levee road after scrambling, then swimming, through the slough. She said she had been abducted and her baby was missing and likely dead. Kinney on Monday said medical examiners could not pinpoint an exact time of death.

Yolo prosecutors say Green, 24, should face a second-degree murder charge because she placed her child in harm’s way when she wandered into Ridge Cut Slough, Justice in tow, after leaving Woodland for Knights Landing in an ill-fated attempt to find her fiancé, Frank Rees.

Rees and Green had planned to meet a female friend in Knights Landing on Feb. 24, but Rees left for Knights Landing alone after the two argued at a Woodland gas station, investigators said.

Green’s attorney, Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson, said Green had no intention of killing her child.

Justice was born with methamphetamine in his system, triggering a file with child welfare workers, his paternal grandmother, Patricia Rees, told The Sacramento Bee in the days after Green’s arrest in March 2015. Child welfare workers had allowed Justice to go home with his parents after they tested free of drugs and agreed to a safety plan that involved Justice’s grandparents.

Rees had previously been committed to a state rehabilitation facility in Riverside County for drug addiction after he was sentenced in Yolo County in 2010 on theft charges, but he was discharged from the facility in 2013, according to court records.

He faces charges and a court date in Yolo Superior Court on drug and ammunition charges found in an unrelated search of his Woodland home in the days after Justice was found dead.

Kinney testified Justice’s blood did not show evidence of “common drugs of abuse” or alcohol, nor were there any signs of broken bones or healed fractures or foul play, including smothering or strangulation.

Medical examiners “tested for a whole host of things,” she said, looking for signs of brain injury, toxicity, malnutrition or other factors that may have caused the infant’s death.

“You name it, he didn’t have it,” Kinney told jurors.

Olson also pressed Kinney on whether congenital heart disease – specifically two diagnosed heart defects – also played a role in newborn Justice Rees’ death, making the lightly clad infant more vulnerable to the near-freezing February cold.

Kinney said the child likely would have perished in the cold regardless of the heart abnormality.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith

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