SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a recommendation of probation, a judge Wednesday ordered prison time for a man accused in the 1988 child abuse death of a little girl he was baby-sitting.
Tears from baby Vanessa Nieto's family turned to emotional applause in the courtroom as Louis Duran, 57, was ordered to serve concurrent terms of up to five years in prison.
"This case has gone on for more than 20 years, and little Vanessa's voice has not been heard in that time," 3rd District Judge Mark Kouris said as he handed down the sentence. "Sometimes justice is slow, but justice nonetheless will take place."
Kouris said his decision hinged on the need to impose justice in the case, especially considering Vanessa's troubling injuries.
"This little tiny person sustained multiple, high-velocity injuries to her head," Kouris emphasized.
But as Vanessa's family celebrated the sentence, Duran's supporters whispered, "I love you, Louis," as bailiffs adjusted the sleeves of his suit coat, placed him in handcuffs and led him from the courtroom.
Duran pleaded guilty in October to two counts of child abuse, third-degree felonies. He was originally charged in May 2014 — 29 years after 15-month-old Vanessa was found dead in her crib — with second-degree murder, a first-degree felony, according to 1988 statutes.
On the day Vanessa died, Duran was supposed to be watching the baby and other children, but said he instead "was heavily under the influence of illegal drugs and slept most of the day," court documents indicate. During that time, Vanessa sustained multiple bruises and injuries to her head.
When the case was reopened, doctors at Primary Children's Hospital and the medical examiner's office reviewed old documents and photographs, determining the infant was "a victim of ongoing child abuse" over the last month of her life, charges state.
Based on Duran's plea, his attorney, Deborah Kreeck Mendez, told the judge Wednesday that the case should no longer be considered a homicide but as child abuse. According to court documents, Duran admitted only to sucking on the baby's cheeks, leaving a bruise, and biting her on the arm.
Prosecutor Rob Parrish noted Wednesday that the deal was reached because of the challenges both sides faced due to decades-old evidence, fading memories and uncertain timelines. He maintained, however, that prosecutors believe Vanessa's fatal injuries occurred while she was in Duran's care.
Though Duran agrees he was in no condition to be watching the children that day, Kreeck Mendez maintained it is unknown when or how Vanessa sustained the head injuries that killed her.
"On that day, the child was fussy and sick and crying. (Duran) didn't care or pay attention to her," Kreeck Mendez said. She went on to add, "We don't know how those head injuries occurred. Louis did not throw this child, did not hit this child."
The baby's death has weighed on Duran through the years, Kreeck Mendez said, and during that time he has made positive changes in his life. Having spent more than 602 days in jail after the charges were filed, Duran was recently been released and has been living with family, helping with cooking, cleaning and child care.
"The man who stands before you today is not the 26-year-old man that he was then," Kreeck Mendez said as she asked the judge to follow the presentencing recommendation for probation.
Reading quietly from a note, Duran stood Wednesday and apologized to Vanessa's mother, Dawn Nieto, for the years she did not get to spend with her daughter.
"She was a ray of sunshine who was taken to heaven too early in her life," Duran said of the baby. "I am sorry for your loss and pray you can find peace in your life."9 comments on this story
Nieto did not stand to address the judge, instead handing over a handwritten letter to share her feelings. Parrish explained that the mother had hoped to speak, but found herself overcome with emotion.
On Sunday, Nieto gathered with her family and friends at the Christian Life Center Ignite Church to honor Vanessa's life, raise awareness of child abuse, and pray for justice ahead of the sentencing. At the time, she said the loss of her daughter has left her with deep emotional scars.
"I just hope justice is served," Nieto said at the time. "I'm scared it's not going to be, but I hope it is because it needs to be. I think once it is, she'll rest in peace."