updated 10/29/2008 7:51:23 PM ET 2008-10-29T23:51:23

Prosecutors say Haleigh Strickland's stepfather and adoptive mother beat the 11-year-old girl so viciously she wound up in a coma and at the center of a now infamous Massachusetts right-to-die battle.

But only the stepfather, Jason Strickland, is standing trial.

Holli Strickland died in a murder-suicide days after being charged with assaulting Haleigh. Legal experts say her absence from Strickland's assault trial, which began Wednesday with jury selection in Hampden Superior Court, could be his best hope for providing reasonable doubt that he abused the girl.

"It's a lot easier to point the finger at a person who is not in the courtroom than it would be if Holli Strickland was alive and facing trial along with him," said David Frank, a former state prosecutor who now writes for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. "There is going to have to be some evidence that (Jason Strickland) participated."

When Haleigh arrived at the hospital on Sept. 11, 2005, she had a severe brain injury, broken teeth and both old and new burns — "layers upon layers of injuries," as one nurse described it.

Partial recovery
But three years later, Haleigh, now 14, has made at least a partial recovery.

She was comatose and on life support for several months. After doctors said she had no hope of recovery, the state Department of Social Services got court permission to withdraw her feeding tube. But within days of that decision, Haleigh began to show signs of improvement.

Critics accused the state of moving too quickly, and the case helped spark a massive overhaul of the state's child welfare system, including the creation of a new Office of the Child Advocate.

They also accused the state of failing to protect Haleigh in the years before she was hospitalized. Records showed that the state had received more than a dozen complaints about cuts and other marks seen on Haleigh between 2001 and 2005, but the agency determined that Haleigh's injuries were self-inflicted and did not remove her from the Strickland home in Westfield.

Neither prosecutors nor officials with the Department of Children and Families will talk about Haleigh's current condition and how much cognitive ability she has. Prosecutors had planned to call her as a witness at her stepfather's trial, but backed off that plan last month, saying they wanted to spare her further trauma.

Jason Strickland's lawyer, Alan Black, has said he hasn't decided whether to call her as a witness. Haleigh is now being treated at a rehabilitation hospital in Boston. Judge Judd Carhart has said that if Haleigh is called as a witness, he would hold a hearing first to determine if Haleigh is competent to testify.

Adopted by aunt at 7
Haleigh was adopted at age 7 by Holli Strickland, her aunt. Haleigh's biological mother, Allison Avrett, has been subpoenaed as a potential witness in Jason Strickland's trial by both the prosecution and the defense, said her attorney, Wendy Murphy.

Murphy said Avrett gave police a photograph she took of Haleigh at a birthday party a couple of months before she was hospitalized. In the photo, Haleigh had visible bruises and a black eye.

"Everybody agrees that this — for the most part — happened behind closed doors, so it's a defendant's dream case because the jury will never be able to know for sure beyond a reasonable doubt whether it was Holli or Jason," Murphy said.

Jason Strickland is charged with assault and battery on a child with substantial bodily injury and a charge of assault and battery on a child with bodily injury.

The judge has said he does not expect opening statements before Monday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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