WOBURN — Four years after she was charged with murdering a Burlington infant she was babysitting — shaking the baby so violently her brain bled, prosecutors allege — Pallavi Macharla tearfully told a Middlesex Superior Court jury Wednesday that she never shook or struck the child.
Instead, the 44-year-old mother of two said she tried desperately to save the baby, who had suddenly become unconscious after choking.
Macharla said Ridhima Dhekane had vomited shortly after she fed her homemade applesauce that fateful March day. She said she cleaned the baby and started to change her clothes when she heard a gurgling sound from her. Macharla said Ridhima had stopped breathing, had a faint pulse, and didn’t respond to her when she spoke her name.
“I did mouth-to-mouth on her,” Macharla said. “I was trying to make her breathe.”
A translator sat by Macharla’s side on the stand, translating the questions into her native tongue, Telugu. Macharla, who trained as a doctor for six years in India, listened to the questions translated, then answered in English.
Her murder trial, now in its third week, has featured dueling accounts from experts who disagree on whether shaken baby syndrome was the cause of Ridhima’s death. Similar battles have played out in courtrooms nationwide, pitting experts who disagree on the validity of long-accepted science about shaken baby deaths.
Macharla testified that on that March morning, Ridhima seemed unusually tired and napped from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. — about three times longer than normal. She said when Ridhima finally woke up she fed the baby the applesauce that Ridhima’s mother had made.
“It was coarse, not smooth as store bought one. Here and there very small pieces,” Macharla said.
After feeding her, Macharla said she put the baby in a swing in the apartment’s living room and went to wash dishes in the kitchen for about 10 minutes. But when she went to check on her, she said the baby had vomited.
But under questioning by prosecutor Katharine Folger, Macharla admitted that she lied to police who had questioned her about that day. She had told police she was with the infant the entire time, and that except for her 4-year old son, they were alone in the apartment.
On Wednesday, Macharla admitted she had left the baby in the care of a neighbor for about 25 minutes, while another neighbor drove her to pick up her son from preschool. But Macharla said Ridhima was sleeping and appeared normal when she returned. Macharla said she didn’t tell police about this because the neighbor who stayed with the baby was pregnant and she didn’t want to cause her stress.
Folger also repeatedly questioned Macharla on her actions after the baby became unconscious, noting that she never dialed 911, or banged on a door of a neighbor.
Macharla said she patted Ridhima on her back and checked if she had a piece of apple stuck in her throat. When she didn’t find anything, she said, she started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She said after a few minutes, she called Ridhima’s mother, Jyoti Shinde, to tell her the baby was not breathing, and Shinde dashed over within 10 minutes.
“As a trained medical doctor, you know how important it is to get immediate medical attention when someone is critically ill?” Folger asked. “You know that every minute counts?”
Macharla said she did, but was concentrating on trying to get the baby to breathe again.
Prosecutors contend that the bleeding in Ridhima’s brain and behind her eyes — typical signs of shaken baby syndrome, the state’s former chief medical examiner earlier testified — were from a brutal shaking or being struck with a blunt object. But Macharla’s team said the baby likely died of cardiac arrest after choking on the applesauce, and the extensive brain bleeding might have been caused by doctors aggressively trying to revive her.
Prosecutors asked Middlesex Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fishman to instruct the jury to also consider a verdict of involuntary manslaughter if they do not believe she committed murder, which would suggest premeditation. They said Macharla’s delay in seeking emergency care was wanton and reckless, which would fit the manslaughter charge.
But during a hearing Wednesday after jurors were dismissed for the day, Macharla’s attorney, J. W. Carney Jr., objected, saying prosecutors presented no evidence to suggest Macharla’s delay in seeking help was reckless. And he said prosecutors didn’t present evidence to back up their contention Macharla violently struck or shook the baby.
“The government is torturing the evidence to try to come up with something that would be equivalent to involuntary manslaughter,” said Carney.
Fishman said he would decide on jury instructions Thursday, and closing arguments are expected Friday.