Remembering Charlenni

You’d be forgiven for not remembering 10-year-old Charlenni Ferreira.

After all, it’s been 4-1/2 years since the Feltonville fifth grader died in what investigators called one of the worst cases of child abuse they’d ever seen. Too many other child-abuse cases have since competed for that title.

You’d also be forgiven for not recalling who was convicted in Charlenni’s death: no one.

Charlenni’s stepmother, Margarita Garabito, remains in custody, held without bail in the city’s Riverside prison, awaiting trial for allegedly beating the girl, breaking her ribs and causing a fatal infection to develop after the injury was never treated.

Now, Garabito’s trial may finally be in sight. On Friday, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn B. Bronson set Jan. 26 for Garabito’s murder trial. Why it has taken this long illustrates why in Pennsylvania, and especially Philadelphia, the term “speedy trial” is often a figure of speech.

Charlenni died Oct. 21, 2009, nine days short of her 11th birthday. Her body was so bruised and battered that authorities said the only real mystery was how -- despite regular contact with friends, neighbors, teachers, nurses and a family doctor who pronounced her fit for school activities a month before her death – no one noticed what was happening to her inside her house on C Street.

After the girl’s death, police arrested Garabito, now 47, and Charlenni’s father, Domingo Ferreira, 53. Garabito’s then-attorney, Barbara A. McDermott, blamed the father and said Garabito also lived in fear of him. Unfortunately for Garabito, Ferreira hung himself in his jail cell shortly after he was arrested.

Garabito was held for trial at a preliminary hearing in January 2010. The case was assigned to Bronson, who set Oct. 31, 2011 for trial – two years after Charlenni’s death. So far, so good.

In early October of 2011, McDermott moved to suppress statements Garabito allegedly made about Charlenni’s death to police and a caseworker for the city’s Department of Human Services. Bronson agreed that the DHS statement could not be used at trial by the prosecution but Okayed the statement to police.

That's when the delays began. First, McDermott, who was running for judge and assured of election, resigned as Garabito’s lawyer and was replaced by J. Michael Farrell. To give Farrell time to prepare, Bronson relisted the trial for Dec. 10, 2012. Then the District Attorney’s office appealed Bronson’s suppression ruling to the state Superior Court.

The Superior Court did not rule on the prosecutor’s appeal until Nov. 16, 2012 and its ruling caused Farrell to appeal to the state Supreme Court. By this point, the original prosecutor, James Berardinelli, had left the District Attorney’s office for private practice. The Dec. 10 trial date came and went.

Last May 2, the Supreme Court denied the defense appeal and the case returned to Bronson, who set a new trial for April 28 and a final pretrial conference with the lawyers for Monday. By this time, Farrell, one of the city’s busiest defense lawyers, had already notified Bronson he was tied up in a federal trial that looked certain to run past April 28.

The new trial date is Jan. 26, the earliest date that fits everybody’s calendars.

The current prosecutor, Andrew Notaristefano, said he thinks this trial date is firm. Well, Notaristefano quickly added, he might have a conflict that would require the trial to be delayed by a week but no more than that: “We’ll be going by February at the latest.”

Charlenni Ferreira was memorialized at a funeral in 2009, one day after what would have been her 11th birthday. Reporters described the service as part-funeral and part-birthday party, where neighbors and friends met on C Street brought out a cake and sang "Happy Birthday" in Spanish and English and released hundreds of balloons into the overcast sky over Feltonville.

She was buried in her mother's hometown of Las Galeras, a seaside village in the Dominican Republic.

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