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Gemma O’Donnell ‘shook baby to death’
THE mother of a baby boy born 13 weeks prematurely shook him to death because she struggled to cope, a court was told.
Leighton O’Donnell weighed 1lb 15oz when he was born with a hole in his heart and chronic lung and eye problems.
When he was five months old, he collapsed at home in Bright Street off Leeman Road in York and was rushed to York Hospital by paramedics, Leeds Crown Court heard.
He died five days later in Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) from a brain injury that the prosecution claim was caused by Leighton being shaken. They say the only person who could have caused it was his mother Gemma O’Donnell, 27. She denies manslaughter.
Leighton was taken to hospital on November 29, 2010 after he began “gasping for breath”, jurors heard.
He was found to have swelling to his brain, which had recently been bleeding, and recent retinal haemorrhages to both eyes. He did not respond to treatment and died on December 4 after the decision was made to switch off his life support.
Opening the prosecution, James Hill QC said: “The prosecution is not suggesting that the defendant intended to kill Leighton. We are not suggesting she was intending to do really serious harm.
"It is the prosecution case that at some stage, no doubt as the result of a temporary loss of control, borne out of frustration, Miss O'Donnell shook Leighton. The medical evidence points very firmly in that direction.”
The Crown claims that O’Donnell, who separated from Leighton’s father before his birth and was “showing signs of cracking under the strain” of looking after Leighton.
She inflicted the fatal injuries James Hill QC, prosecuting, told jurors. He added: “It was no accident, rather a loss of temper. It’s the prosecution case that the most likely result was that Leighton was shaken and that the only person who could be responsible is his mother.
“The prosecution is not suggesting that Gemma O'Donnell intended to do serious harm. Had that been the position then murder would have been the appropriate charge.
“Gemma O'Donnell shook Leighton and we say that the medical evidence points very firmly in that direction. We say that she shook him and that that amounts to an assault. We say that any reasonable person would realise that if you shake a baby 20 weeks old, you are exposing that baby to a risk of harm.”
Robert Smith QC for the defence accepted Leighton did have three medical symptoms known as the “triad” that could be a “strong indicator” that the brain injury was not accidental.
But, he added the prosecution’s expert medical witnesses “have failed to take account of some important and unique aspects of Leighton’s history and his illness which, when carefully considered, show the allegation that Miss O'Donnell caused his injuries by shaking him, is simply not an acceptable explanation for his death.”
Mr Hill said Leighton was born on July 14, 2010, and stayed in hospital, mostly in the special care baby unit at York Hospital until October 12, when he weighed 5lb 8oz. He still needed oxygen given to him by a nasal tube and feeding every three hours, but many of his medical problems had been resolved.
“In simple terms, by then he was making excellent progress,” said Mr Hill. “Unfortunately, it is the prosecution's case, once he was at home, he didn’t thrive.”
Leighton was twice admitted to hospital again in November and a neo-natal community nurse assigned to him was concerned enough to prevent his discharge until Miss O’Donnell could show she could feed him properly, Mr Hill alleged.
Miss O’Donnell was caring for Leighton alone because she had separated from his father before his birth, her mother had died five years earlier and her new boyfriend was 20 and played very little part in the baby’s care.
A friend of her mother, Francesca Barley claimed to police O’Donnell had sounded “shaky” during a phone call with her in late November.
The first thing O'Donnell had said was “I can’t shut him up, he won’t stop crying”. She didn’t seem receptive to advice and the call left Ms Barley feeling “on edge”, claimed Mr Hill.
The prosecution allege on November 29, when Leighton was rushed to York Hospital, O’Donnell may have delayed raising the alarm about his condition and that in the ambulance she told paramedics she was “worried she had done something wrong”.
As Leighton’s condition deteriorated, he was transferred to the Leeds hospital, and on December 4 his life support system was switched off. The trial is expected to last four weeks.