Babysitter Shayal Upashna Sami has been jailed for five years for the manslaughter of a baby in her care.
She was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter at the end of an 11-day trial in October and November and remanded on bail for sentencing by Justice Rachel Dunningham in the High Court at Christchurch today.
The Crown said the then-18-year-old had recklessly killed Aaliyah Ashlyn Chand, aged one, in a moment of anger or frustration as she looked after her on January 6, 2015.
Defence counsel Jonathan Eaton QC had argued that there was no crime at all and the baby’s death had been the result of a head injury sustained in an unwitnessed fall from furniture.
Evidence from expert witnesses was a major part of the cases presented to the jury.
Sami, now aged 21, had denied the murder charge. The Crown alleged she must have assaulted the child, shaking or bashing her against a flat surface, fracturing the rear of her skull.
Aaliyah was delivered to Christchurch Hospital by Sami and a neighbour and died in intensive care.
Sami told police she did not see the fall but heard a thud and found the baby on the floor, floppy and responsive. The Crown said a fall from a couch would be inconsistent with the severe and extensive head injuries the child received.
Aaliyah’s family told the sentencing session of “the worst tragedy in our lives – parents’ worst nightmare, the loss of our baby”. They told of the excitement there had been about the arrival of their very beautiful baby. “She was always smiling. She was a quiet natured girl, and used to sleep well.”
“Her presence filled our home, like a princess in the palace,” said her mother. “Shayal, your actions have put us through unbearable pain. You have left us serving a life sentence.”
Crown prosecutor Mark Zarifeh said the judge could treat the injuries as arising from a one-off incident arising from a momentary loss of temper and control. The child had received serious injuries, with a fractured skull and facial bruising consistent with gripping.
Mr Eaton said Sami had been an 18-year-old new immigrant to Christchurch, who was excited about her own pregnancy. She steadfastly maintained she did not do anything, but she knew she was going to jail. She had been devastated by the loss of Aaliyah.
Her own daughter had already been sent back to Fiji and she would be deported when she had served her prison term.
He said there had been no pattern of abuse, but Sami was being sentenced for “a momentary lapse of self-control”. Sami had led a blameless life, and had left school early in Fiji to look after children. She had been five months pregnant at the time of Aaliyah’s death, and as a result of the charge she had been not allowed to be alone with her own child until the trial was held, three years later.
She had volunteered to care for Aaliyah and they had a happy relationship. She had been working long hours.
Her husband had sent a moving letter to the judge, and character references provided to the court, said Mr Eaton.
Justice Dunningham said the jury had found that the injuries had been inflicted and were not the result of an accidental fall. “We don’t know what prompted you to injure Aaliyah, or how her injuries were caused.”
She had history of offending, and at the time had been working long hours after the “considerable adjustment” of moving from Fiji to her new situation in Christchurch.
She paused in her sentencing remarks to reassure Aaliyah’s parents that they had emerged from the evidence as responsible parents who could not have done anything else to avoid the tragedy.
In deciding the sentence, she considered the defencelessness of the young victim and the breach of the relationship of trust by Sami. She accepted that the offending was out of character, arising from a momentary loss of control.
She reduced the sentence for her otherwise good character, her youth, and the situation she faced with her isolation in a foreign environment. Being imprisoned in a foreign country would pose extra hardship because English was her second language. She had been on bail conditions for a long period awaiting trial, which also led to a sentence reduction.
She imposed a five-year jail term and read her a first-strike warning.