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Jury acquits TC woman on battery charge

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Sandage found not guilty at end of week-long trial

By Vince Luecke

TELL CITY - Heather Sandage covered her face in relief Saturday morning after a jury acquitted her of causing the 2005 death of 7-month-old Izaak Harney.

The jury's verdict, reached in less than two hours, removed the Class A felony that had hung for nearly four years over Sandage, who was the child's baby-sitter.

As she sat, Sandage's relatives and friends hugged one another and the woman's attorneys, Joseph and Nathan Verkamp.

On the other side of the courtroom, stunned relatives of the child consoled one another while Harney's parents left the courtroom.

After four full days of testimony, jurors heard closing arguments Saturday morning before embarking on a seldom-seen weekend deliberation. They weighed conflicting testimony by medical experts on what killed the Spencer County child, who was hospitalized Oct. 11, 2005, after Sandage called an ambulance to report he was having trouble breathing.

Deputy Perry County Prosecutor James Tyler centered the state's case on the testimony of the medical examiner, Dr. Michelle Catellier, who conducted the child's autopsy, and forensic pediatrician Dr. Antoinette Laskey. Catellier, now working in Iowa, said the cause of death was blunt-force trauma and ruled the case a homicide. She and Laskey said Harney suffered severe bleeding within and around his brain and also had massive retinal bleeding.

The defense called the state's case into question, relying on testimony of two doctors who said the child suffered from pneumonia at the time of his death and may have had other health problems that slowed his growth. The two defense experts, Drs. John Plunkett and George Nichols, also suggested injuries the child suffered occurred days before Oct. 11.

Tyler used his closing statement to focus the nine women and three men on the evidence, saying the child died not from falling over on a carpeted floor in his home, as was reported by some witnesses, or from pneumonia, but a "catastrophic event" directly caused by Sandage inside her Tell City home.

Tyler also called into question the testimony of Nichols, a retired Kentucky medical examiner who testifies around the country. Tyler was critical of the man's Web site, which includes a skull and anecdotes about how quickly he can complete the autopsy of gunshot victims. Tyler called the marketing unprofessional.

Joe Verkamp argued in his closing remarks that the state failed its burden of proving Sandage's guilt, saying the circumstantial evidence presented by the state simply wasn't strong enough for a conviction.

Verkamp returned to a major defense argument that some autopsy tests, such as the dating of bruises, weren't done and left unanswered questions.

"If you're going to make a diagnosis that someone committed homicide, you'd better do all of the testing," he said.

Verkamp also pointed to Sandage's own testimony on Friday in which she talked about her concern for the child.

Judge William Weikert, who presided over the case, thanked jurors for their service and family members and friends for their decorum during the trial.