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Pasco County father pleads guilty in death of 19-year-old shaken as a baby

NEW PORT RICHEY — Christopher Michael Wells lost his temper with his tiny, 2-month-old daughter, inflicting grave brain injuries on baby Christina. He went to prison for child abuse. She went into foster care and never learned to speak or walk.

After a lifetime of disability, Christina died just shy of her 20th birthday of complications from that childhood trauma. And Wells, all those years later, was charged with her death.

On Monday, the 42-year-old father pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He'll get credit for the time he has spent in jail since his arrest in 2006.

Maureen Welch, who adopted Christina and was her caregiver until her death, said she was relieved by the outcome but still heartsick.

"I think it's very sad, when I think of Beanie" — her nickname for Christina. "But when I think of the condition (Wells) left her in, I get so angry," Welch said Monday.

Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis said the myriad legal issues in the case left open the possibility for years of appeals.

As part of his plea agreement, Wells waived all future appeals.

"They will be non-issues now," Halkitis said. "He has no appellate remedies."

The case, at first glance, could appear to be double jeopardy — trying a person twice for the same crime — which is constitutionally prohibited.

But Robert Batey, a professor at Stetson University College of Law, said this case involves two separate offenses.

"The first crime was some form of assault, and the second crime was murder," Batey said. "He could not have been charged with homicide back in 1986 because the victim was not dead."

Wells' attorneys also tried initially to have the murder charge dismissed under an old English common law tenet that a defendant cannot be charged with murder if the victim died more than a year and a day after infliction of the fatal injury.

That was also the law in Florida in 1986, the year Christina was injured. It followed, then, that a death that occurred two decades after the crime could not be murder, Wells' lawyer said then.

A judge refused to toss the case, but Halkitis said Monday those legal questions could have kept it hanging, particularly given the uniqueness of the case.

Christina was a redheaded infant living in Hudson when her father, then just 19, shook her and slapped her in a fit of frustration. He demonstrated for investigators how he covered her mouth to squelch her wails. The baby suffered the effects of suffocation-type injuries: brain damage, partial blindness and severe physical disabilities.

Wells pleaded guilty in 1989 to a charge of aggravated child abuse, was sentenced to five years in prison and served about a year. His wife, Tina, was also charged and served a year.

It was after Christina's death on March 15, 2006, while in the care of her adoptive mother, that Pasco authorities announced they were investigating the Wellses for murder. Only Christopher Wells ended up being indicted.

Halkitis planned to present testimony from the medical examiner who determined Christina's death was a homicide, caused by complications of blunt trauma.

But Batey noted, "The medical examiner's statement is not the last word on that. It's a jury determination."

From the defense perspective, Batey said, it was a gamble to risk a life sentence if Wells had been convicted of first-degree murder.

"You've got … a situation that might inflame a jury and cause them to want to punish the defendant," Batey said.

Maureen Welch did not attend Monday's hearing.

She spent many nights cradling and comforting Christina, who would sometimes scream for hours with pain she could not articulate.

Welch had six daughters of her own; she adopted four more children — all with disabilities — out of the foster system.

Welch, now 77, didn't talk about the unending work of caring for Christina — turning her in her bed every three hours, feeding her, bathing her and monitoring the machines that kept her alive.

She talked only of the joy.

"I loved every minute of it, every second," Welch said, her eyes tearing up. "And I miss her really terribly. I really do."

"I'm lost without her," she said. "I don't know what to do with myself now."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Pasco County father pleads guilty in death of 19-year-old shaken as a baby 03/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 8, 2010 10:40pm]
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