Belfast Telegraph

Child had 31 bruises to his head that may have been caused by knuckles of clenched fist, inquest is told

BY AMANDA FERGUSON

A toddler who died from a trauma to the head was found to have 31 bruises which could have been caused by the knuckles of a clenched fist, an inquest has heard.

A series of expert witnesses told Belfast Coroner's Court yesterday that 20-month-old Liam Gonzales-Bennett's death was due to non-accidental blunt force trauma to the head.

The Ballymena boy had been in the care of his mother, Samantha Bennett, and stepfather, Paul Noel McKeown, on February 7, 2009, the day he suffered fatal injuries so severe he would have been blinded instantly.

On his arrival at hospital, doctors raised concerns about the nature of Liam's injuries resulting in the police and social services being called.

Liam was declared brain dead by doctors from the intensive care unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

The ventilator keeping his body alive was switched off the next day at 7.30pm, only hours after his father had arrived in Northern Ireland from Tenerife.

Retired acting detective chief inspector Deborah McMaster told the court that, as part of a murder investigation, the little boy's mother and stepfather were both arrested and interviewed a number of times.

A file was then sent to the Public Prosecution Service, but no prosecution was brought, as there was deemed to be insufficient evidence to charge either.

When Coroner Suzanne Anderson questioned the former police officer about this, she said: "There wasn't sufficient evidence to identify who caused the injuries to Liam."

Ms McMaster told the court that police were not pursuing anyone else in connection with the death and to date no one has been made amenable for his death.

The court heard that on the morning of February 7, 2009, the toddler had fallen approximately 1ft off a stool on to a carpeted floor, but medical experts discounted this as being a factor in his death.

The court heard Ms Bennett had driven Mr McKeown to his mother's house on that day and she had then taken four-year-old daughter Danielle and 20-month-old Liam shopping in Ballymena. Ms Bennett returned to Sunningdale Park in Ballymena, a property owned by Mr McKeown's father, made the children dinner, bathed them and put them to bed.

At around 6.30pm Mr McKeown came home and at 7pm Ms Bennett left the house to go to a Tesco store 10 minutes away.

Mr McKeown, currently based in Australia for work, told the police he heard Liam crying and then this stopped. According to evidence read out to the court, he went into the child's bedroom at around 7.15pm and found him with his back arched and not breathing.

An ambulance was called and Liam was taken to Antrim Area Hospital and then transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Ms McMaster told the court Ms Bennett and Mr McKeown could not account for Liam's fatal injuries.

Dr Alistair Bentley, deputy state pathologist for Northern Ireland, told the court Liam's death was "due to non accidental blunt force trauma to the head".

He said the 31 bruises on his head, measuring up to two inches each, could have been caused by an object or objects with a small surface area and said it could have been "knuckles of a clenched fist".

Dr Bentley said Liam had also suffered brain swelling, severe damage to nerve fibres, subdural haemorrhage and retinal haemorrhage, as well as having a sizeable bruise over the right side of his pelvis and some other non specific bruises.

Dr John H McCarthy, a consultant histopathologist, discounted the suggestion Liam's injuries were as a result of a fall.

The inquest continues.

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