A man accused of beating his stepdaughter so severely that she suffered a permanent brain injury — triggering a right-to-die case — testified Friday that he never hit her and believed his wife's claims that the girl injured herself.
Jason Strickland denied prosecutors' claims that he and his late wife, Holli, beat 11-year-old Haleigh Poutre into a coma in September 2005.
Haleigh was at the center of the right-to-die debate after the state received court permission to remove her feeding tube. But she began showing signs of improvement days later and can now perform simple tasks such as feeding herself and writing her name. She remains in a Boston rehabilitation hospital.
Strickland, 34, portrayed Haleigh as a troubled child who was once admitted to the hospital for an eating disorder. He said she had a habit of biting the side of her mouth until it bled and that her nose was "typically red" from continually picking at an old scab.
Strickland testified that his wife told him repeatedly over a five-year period that Haleigh caused a litany of injuries, including bruises, burns and cuts to various parts of her body.
He said that during the year before Haleigh suffered her near-fatal brain injury, Holli Strickland was taking her to see a nurse practitioner on a weekly basis to perform body checks "because Haleigh was hurting herself."
Noticed bruises, marks
Strickland said when he noticed bruises or other marks on Haleigh, his wife told him the girl hurt herself.
"Most of the time, Holli would explain to me what happened," Strickland said.
He recalled one time when Haleigh had a badly bruised and swollen foot, with bloody toenails.
"What did Holli tell you?" Black asked.
"That she was dropping a bowling ball on her foot," Strickland replied.
Jason Strickland is the only person to stand trial for Haleigh's injuries. Holli Strickland died in an apparent murder-suicide with her grandmother after she and Jason were charged in the 2005 beating. Haleigh was adopted at age 7 by Holli, her aunt.
Strickland, who married Holli in 2002, said he never hit Haleigh or her younger sister, Samantha, but acknowledged giving each girl an occasional "tap" on the back of the head "to get her attention."
"But never in a disciplinary fashion," he said.
Girl can't identify defendant
Earlier in the trial, Samantha Poutre, now 12, testified that she saw Jason Strickland push Haleigh down the stairs the day she suffered the brain injury. But Samantha, who was 9 at the time, pointed to the wrong man when asked to identify Strickland in the courtroom.
Haleigh 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. Days later, Haleigh began to show signs of improvement.
The state was criticized for moving too quickly, and the case helped spark an overhaul of Massachusetts' child welfare system, including the creation of a new Office of the Child Advocate.
The state also was denounced for failing to protect Haleigh in the years before she was hospitalized.
Records showed 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 the girl's injuries were self-inflicted and did not remove her from the Strickland home in Westfield.