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Marrara baby death case goes to jury in Bergen County

The trial of Michael Marrara, charged with aggravated manslaughter in the death of his infant son, began Thursday, April 5, 2018. For NorthJersey.com

HACKENSACK — The fate of former Fort Lee firefighter Michael Marrara rests with the jury, which on Thursday began weighing charges that he allegedly killed his cranky infant son in a bout of rage after the baby wouldn’t take his bottle in March 2012.

The jury of six men and six women got the case late Thursday morning, then deliberated for about four hours without reaching a verdict on charges of aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a baby and hindering apprehension. The jury will return on Monday to resume its deliberation.

The jury asked for one playback: the frantic 9-1-1 call that Marrara placed his Fort Lee apartment around 7:30 a.m. on the morning of March 26, 2012, after baby Andrew had stopped breathing. Marrara later told police the infant suddenly turned "beet red" and he and the baby’s mother, Lindsay, tried to revive him to no avail. The baby was pronounced dead at Englewood Hospital about an hour later.

Judge Margaret Foti supplied the playback and after listening to the tape, the jurors returned to deliberations for another two hours before calling it a day.

The prosecution contends that 10-week-old Andrew died of blunt force trauma to the head, and it was Michael Marrara, frustrated that infant wouldn’t take his bottle and prone to angry outbursts, who delivered the fatal blow in the kitchen that morning. The defense contends the baby was sick and went into seizure, and Marrara did everything he could to save the infant.

Bergen County Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Fitzpatrick addresses the jury during the opening statements in the trial of Michael Marrara who is accused of killing his infant child Chris Monroe/ Special to NorthJersey.com

(Photo: Chris Monroe/Special to NorthJersey.com)

The prosecution suggested to the jury that Marrara delayed making the 9-1-1 call after allegedly injuring the baby — although Marrara’s wife Lindsay, testified that the called for help immediately.

"He couldn’t control his anger and he lashed out at that child," Senior Assistant Prosecutor David V. Calviello said during closing arguments on Wednesday. "He killed that child and the evidence in this case is overwhelming to that fact."

But Marrara didn’t take the stand, the manner of death remains a mystery, and the cause of death — officially, closed head trauma — is in dispute. Calviello suggested to the jury that Marrara was feeding the child with an oversize syringe the size of a "turkey baster" that morning, but the object was never found when police searched the apartment.

Also problematic to the state’s case is none of the pathologists who testified for the state could say for certain how — or if — Marrera delivered the fatal blow to his baby.

"The baby was punched in the face? That’s ridiculous," defense attorney John Latoracca said during closing arguments.

Marrara, who has been on trial for a month, faces up from 10 to 30 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge, aggravated manslaughter. Foti instructed the jury that if they cannot convict Marrara of aggravated manslaughter, they are to consider the lesser charge of reckless manslaughter.

As they have since the trial began a month ago, Marrara’s wife, their parents and family packed the courtroom. And after the judge delivered her instructions, they left to begin the long, nerve-wracking wait as the jury began sorting out the highly-technical case that is loaded with medical terminology and gruesome autopsy photos.

During the trial, Lindsay Marrara testified that she immediately slung the baby over her shoulder and thumped him twice in an effort to revive him, but to no avail.

But the prosecution contends that something more sinister happened, and they point to the four hemorrhages found on the infant’s brain during the autopsy. There was also a contusion on the baby’s forehead, and a cut on his upper lip. The state has presented four pathologists as expert witnesses — including the former the former Bergen County Medical Examiner, Dr. Frederick DiCarlo — who all concluded that those injuries were not the result of natural causes, so Andrew must be the victim of a homicide.

They say the baby’s head was throttled by some kind of external force, and although the prosecution concedes that it doesn’t know exactly how or when the fatal blow was delivered, it contends that Michael Mararra is to blame. To that end, the state has presented a series of injuries that Andrew received in the weeks leading up to his death — bruises on his legs, and a three fractured ribs —to suggest that child had been roughly handled by his father.

"He couldn’t control his anger and he lashed out at that child," Senior Assistant Prosecutor David V. Calviello said during closing arguments on Wednesday. "He killed that child and the evidence in this case is overwhelming to that fact."

The defense says the state’s case is an underwhelming mishmash of science and speculation that doesn’t add up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They contend that the child didn’t die of head trauma, but there was evidence of a virus on the brain which caused the hemorrhages, a condition known as Corticol Venous Thrombosis (CVT).

John Bruno is one of two defense attorneys representing Michael Marrara.

Defense attorney John Latoracca said the prosecutor’s office conducted "a lousy, incomplete investigation" that was prejudiced against against Marrara and relied on the suspicion that the father had shaken the baby so hard that he caused hemorrhages. But Latoracca advised that Andrew didn’t have any of the other injuries normally associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome: no injuries to the neck or grip marks around the neck.

To that end, the defense presented the jury with their own expert witness, Dr. Zhongxue Hua. Hua is currently the acting Bergen County Medical Examiner, although he did not hold that title at the time he was hired by the defense as a consultant in 2014.

Hua was called to the stand largely to rebut the testimony of Dr. Frederick DiCarlo, who was Bergen County Medical Examiner at the time of the baby’s death and agreed with the autopsy finding that baby Andrew died of blunt force trauma to the head.

But Hua testified that the blood clots found on the baby’s brain had been there for "several days" before the infant’s death. Such clots are not always fatal, he said, but left untreated, can lead to apnea and seizures that can cause death.

"This was not treated and not discovered in the initial autopsy," he told the jury.

Latoracca pointed out that infant deaths from CVT are not all that rare; he cited one study that estimated 1,600 infants suffer from CVT each year, and 400 die from it.

"Four hundred deaths," he said. "That’s a lot of babies."

Another fact for the jury is what to make of the three fractured ribs that were discovered during the autopsy. Those rib fractures were healing and therefore could not have caused the baby’s death, the autopsy said. But the prosecution contends they are a sign of physical abuse, and a precursor of what was to come.

All four pathologists called by the state testified that rib fractures are rarely found in infants. But none of them could pinpoint when the injuries occurred, and because they did not contribute to the cause of death, the defense has sought to convince the jury that they are irrelevant to the criminal charges.

The prosecution says those rib fractures are evidence of a pattern of rough treatment. Lindsay also took the baby to see the pediatrician on Feb. 27, after discovering bruises on the baby’s legs. Marrara, in a text message to his wife, seemed to suggest that he had swaddled the baby too tightly.

"They sent that baby home, and one month to the day, the child shows up dead," Calviello told the jury.

LAWSUIT: Former Bergen County Prosecutor’s employee, thrown in psych ward, wins $625K settlement

EARLIER: Rare disease caused Fort Lee baby’s death, not violence, medical examiner says

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