CAMBRIDGE — Sameer Sabir often tells people he’s not interested in leaving his outdated and cramped office in Harvard Square because he’s superstitious. Many good things have happened on the third floor of Mifflin Place, where Sabir, a London-born entrepreneur, oversees Brixton Biosciences, a successful venture-backed biosciences firm.
But, deep down, there is a part of Sabir that clings to the dingy place because it’s a short walk from Ash Street, where he used to stroll with his first daughter, Rehma. The seamstress who would wave at his jolly infant still idles in the window of a Mt. Auburn laundromat, stitching garments, threading buttons. The brick condominium complex where he and his wife, Nada Siddiqui, began their life in Cambridge still bustles with activity.
It was in one of these apartments that Sabir last saw Rehma smile, on Jan. 14, 2013, the morning of her first birthday. The couple headed off to work, leaving Rehma in the care of her nanny, Aisling Brady McCarthy. By that afternoon, the 1-year-old was unresponsive, her brain swelling uncontrollably and blood pooling behind her eyes. She died a few days later.
What happened to Rehma that day would become the subject of a fierce, years-long legal dispute and a seminal case regarding shaken baby syndrome, a type of infant head trauma that has spawned a thorny legal and scientific debate. Several infant death cases have centered on the syndrome, perhaps none better known than the Louise Woodward trial, another high-profile Boston case in the late 1990s.
The day Rehma was found unresponsive, McCarthy, then 34, was detained on the spot. Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan filed murder charges against her after medical examiner Katherine Lindstrom ruled Rehma’s death a homicide by blunt force trauma. But then, weeks before the case was set to go to trial, Lindstrom made a last-minute reversal, ruling the child’s death inconclusive, possibly caused by a brain bleed of unknown cause. Ryan dropped the murder charges, McCarthy was deported back to Ireland, and the memory of the 1-year-old faded from public consciousness.
But it lived on in her parents.
“People told us, even months later, to move on,” Sabir said in a recent interview with the Globe, weeks after what would have been Rehma’s 10th birthday. “But loss like this, out of the natural order of things, it eats at you forever.”
Sabir and Siddiqui never spoke to the media when the case was being considered, on the advice of their attorneys at the time. Nine years later, they’ve decided to go public with their ongoing grief and the feeling of betrayal that still lingers after Rehma’s life story ended with a question mark.
In December, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta published a sprawling three-part series on Rehma’s death after reviewing hundreds of published studies on abusive head trauma and consulting more than 50 medical and legal experts. The story questioned the medical examiner’s ruling and spotlighted the coterie of shaken baby syndrome denialists who regularly testify on behalf of the defense in cases like Rehma’s.
The research seemed to underscore what the couple feared all along, that Rehma’s acute injuries that day likely did not stem from any of the bleeding disorders that the medical examiner considered as alternative causes of death.
“The way in which we lost her, and what followed, impacts how we move forward through our lives. If she had died of an illness, or if there had been accountability for her death, I wonder if there would be less bitterness today,” said Siddiqui.
McCarthy — who spent two years in jail while awaiting trial — maintained her innocence throughout the ordeal. Represented by former attorney general Martha Coakley, Sabir and Siddiqui won $4 million in damages in a wrongful death lawsuit filed after Ryan dropped the murder charges. McCarthy did not have anything like that kind of money, but Coakley said the goal was to ensure that she could not profit off Rehma’s story through movie or book deals. In a 2016 interview with the Globe, McCarthy called her defense lawyer, Boston-based Mindy Thompson, her “guardian angel” for successfully saving her from a potential sentence of life in prison.
Then, as now, Sabir and Siddiqui maintain that locking McCarthy up for life wasn’t their endgame. It was about getting an answer to what happened that day in January. How could a child go from giggling and eating cake alongside family and toddlers on Saturday to being internally bruised and bleeding on Monday?
“It’s not about the nanny going to jail. It’s about the false narrative that either Rehma was hurt by someone else, the implication being the she was hurt in my care, or that she was a very sick child whose illness killed her. That’s not how her life was lived, but that’s how her life was told,” said Siddiqui.
Although the case dragged on for years after Rehma’s death, it never went to trial because Ryan decided to drop the charges. This, too, gnaws at the couple.
“Had Ash [McCarthy] been exonerated, that would have been one thing. It would have been easier. ... But the fact that it [the trial] was cut off at the knees? That was the hardest part, because Rehma didn’t even get a chance. It was all based on the whims of a medical examiner and a district attorney,” said Sabir.
In a statement, Ryan said “The death of Rehma was a heartbreaking loss, yet in light of the amended ruling from the Medical Examiner that performed the autopsy, our office lacked the evidence to meet the high burden of proof ethically required to proceed.”
The medical examiner, Lindstrom, who no longer works for the state, could not be reached.
Sabir pointed to disturbing evidence from the scene that was found by police when they searched the Cambridge apartment the day after Rehma was taken to the hospital.
“I can’t imagine any other circumstance where two people are left in an apartment and you come back and there are broken bones, drywall missing from the wall, blood in the diaper pail, all kinds of evidence, and there is no trial.”
Sabir has spent the past few years advocating for the creation and passage of a state bill that would place more scrutiny on medical examiners performing autopsies on a child under the age of 2 by requiring the chief medical examiner to sign off on any rulings or revisions made by those who work under him or her.
“The passage of this bill is not going to relieve them of any pain. But it is going to ensure that the additional unnecessary pain that was brought on to them by what happened with the medical examiner never happens to another family again,” said Marjorie Decker, a state representative serving Cambridge and one of the bill’s sponsors.
The bill, dubbed “An Act to Promote Public Safety and Certainty Related to Child Deaths,” is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee. Sabir describes it as a “quality control” measure.
“Imagine, you’re navigating the grief and anger of the loss of your child, and you’re relying on the criminal justice system to get answers, and all of a sudden they pull the rug out from underneath you, creating more harm,” said Decker.
Siddiqui moved to the United States in 2000 from Pakistan with a belief in America’s legal systems.
“When all of this happened, I just completely expected the system to work,” she said. “That’s part of the point of coming here from a place where the systems just routinely fail.”
But after Rehma’s death, her grandmother asked if justice was really all that different in America than back home.
“And I really couldn’t answer her,” Siddiqui admitted.
Today, her trust in the legal system and its capacity for justice remains shattered. She avoids following the legislation and channels her lingering trauma into her role as mother of Rehma’s four healthy and happy siblings. She became pregnant with the oldest as the case was still playing out.
“At the time, I thought, ‘God sure does have a very weird sense of humor,’” Siddiqui said. “I wasn’t sure how I was to care for another child after all of this. But really it was the only reason I finally started getting out of bed in the morning again.”
A photo montage of Rehma’s short life covers a portion of a family room wall in the family’s Arlington home, which the couple first toured with Rehma in the months before her death. Sometimes it’s painful to be near Boston and Cambridge, where reminders of her short life and sudden death pop up unexpectedly. But the Arlington home is the only place all five of the couple’s children have been. And that gives them a sense of unity.
The older children know that she died. It is the how that remains unanswered.
“I don’t want to lie to them, so I say she was really sick in the last few days of her life in the hospital,” explained Siddiqui.
But the story lives on for those who followed the so-called Irish nanny case of 2013. One day at school, a classmate of the couple’s 6-year-old son told him that his sister was killed by her nanny. The teacher quickly intervened. But a child doesn’t forget a comment like that, even if in the moment he grew confused and numb. And the case — in all of its complexity and harrowing detail — is just a Google search away.
At some point, they’ll have to share the details. Even if this is a hard story to tell to an adult, much less a child who doesn’t know how the justice system rarely brings justice to all, or how grief, revived by the sight of a seamstress fiddling with a button inside a laundromat, can hit you like a tidal wave nine years after the fact.
Hanna Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.