A Munster man was acquitted Monday in the beating death of his 5-month-old daughter, Lake County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Myrna Maldonado said.
The jury deliberated for a few hours, she said.
Justin Harling, 28, was charged as of Oct. 21, 2020, with murder and aggravated battery in the Dec. 12, 2019, death of Morgan Harling.
The child was “unconscious” after he took her to change her diaper in the Munster Target restroom on Dec. 11, 2019, according to court records.
During the trial, lawyers offered competing theories to experts about the causes of his death.
Prosecutors say the girl wasn’t the same after Harling took her to get a diaper change. After her death, she showed signs of abuse, Marion County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Christopher Poulos said Thursday.
Through the original doctor’s notes, field reports, emails with the original doctor, and by performing part of the autopsy himself, Poulos discovered other, older, unrelated bruises on the side left side of Morgan’s brain. These injuries wouldn’t be enough to kill her, but the new injuries she had on top of the old ones might, especially the skull fracture on the back of her head that was more of a splinter than a linear fracture consistent with , say, falling off a changing table, he said.
Morgan also had bleeding in her retina and optic nerve consistent with severe trauma, and the fracture at the base of her skull contained blood, which would not have happened if she had been dropped or mishandled during transport to Indianapolis, he said.
Defense experts said the child was already weakened by bouts of RSV and pneumonia, in addition to pre-existing injuries. At the time, she was in foster care.
The defense rested its case Monday after testimony from Dr. Jennifer Johnson, a consultant and nurse practitioner hired as a medical expert. She told Harling’s defense attorney, Joseph Curosh, that the dose of fentanyl given to Morgan at Community Hospital was “catastrophic” for his recovery.
Morgan Harling’s oxygen saturation levels were around 100% when she was taken to the emergency room. After administration of fentanyl, this dropped gradually to a low of 58% at one point. Even though Narcan was administered within an hour, the child’s oxygen saturation levels never fully recovered, she said.
Under cross-examination, Deputy Prosecutor Keith Anderson asked, since the girl’s pupils were already “repaired” by the time she arrived at the emergency room, if something was wrong, before she received the doses of fentanyl.
“That’s right,” Johnson replied.
During a supervised visit on Dec. 11, 2019, Harling, Kailani Strickland, the child’s mother, and Strickland’s aunt, Jeralyn Kroll, took Morgan and his half-brother, 8, to the Texas Roadhouse in Dyer for the boy’s birthday. Next, they stopped at Target in Munster. While waiting in line at the self-checkout, Harling took the child to the family restroom to change her diaper when she became unresponsive, he told police.
The social worker was supposed to be with them, but she remained in her car in the parking lot, Anderson said. Harling screamed for help. A nearby pediatric nurse performed CPR until paramedics arrived.
The child was taken to community hospital, where a doctor noticed “several bruises and scratches” on her head, while a CT scan confirmed a brain hemorrhage. She was then flown to St. Vincent Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis where she was pronounced dead on arrival, according to the charges.
Strickland said Tuesday that the girl was “smiling, laughing” and “alert” at the restaurant. She had noticed a bruise on the child’s head, but the lighting was dim in the restaurant. It was clearer once we got to Target.
At the checkout, Harling volunteered to change the baby. The girl was crying loudly.
Harling opened the door and asked for a second diaper, the first having torn. He opened the door again and asked a question. She entered. The child, on the changing table, looked “purple”. She later said that the girl’s eyes were like those of a “doll”.
During the 911 call, Strickland told a dispatcher that the child was not breathing and that she appeared to be choking. His feet, face and hands were turning blue. They went to Community, she testified, then headed to the hospital in Indianapolis, but were told the child had died 15 minutes after the flight began.
Kroll testified that she noticed a “large, yellow” bruise on the child’s head, which was more apparent after they arrived at Target.
She took the brother to the bathroom, then went outside to see Strickland “hysterical” and on the phone with 911.
After the girl’s death, Munster police interviewed Harling, who said the child was “panting” and “changing color” after having to change her diaper several times. He denied that she fell off the changing table. She was a “squirming child” and “it was possible she hit her head on the changing table,” he told police.
There was also a mix of old and new injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, Poulos said, according to the affidavit. The parents told police she suffered from a vitamin D deficiency. That could make the fractures easier, but does not explain the multiple injuries or brain damage, Poulos added.
Harling and Strickland told police the two children were taken by Child Protective Services when Morgan was a month old after taking her to the hospital with a broken arm. She was placed at the Carmelite Home in East Chicago before being transferred to a foster family, according to charges.
Michelle Quinn contributed.
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