Nine years ago, just days after her first birthday, Rehma Sabir was found unresponsive in the Sabir family’s Cambridge home while in the care of her nanny, Aisling Brady McCarthy.
“It was all a blur. Police officers turned up. Paramedics turned up. One of them kept saying ‘It’s her birthday,'” recalled Sameer Sabir, Rehma’s father. “She was rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital, where she was evaluated in the emergency room. And it fairly quickly became clear that she had suffered some sort of catastrophic brain injury.”
Rehma died two days later. Medical examiner Katherine Lindstrom ruled the death a homicide as the result of blunt-force head injuries, and McCarthy was charged with murder. Then, shortly before the trial, Lindstrom amended the manner of death to “undetermined” and said the girl may have had some type of undiagnosed disorder. The charge against McCarthy was dropped.
Rehma’s parents, Sabir and Nada Siddiqui, have been working to pass state legislation that would require more oversight for medical examiners in cases involving children under the age of 2.
“The medical examiner has an office that not many people think about, but I think it plays a really critical role in not just the criminal justice system, but also helping families to understand what happened to their loved ones — and in the case of children, you can imagine it’s particularly sensitive,” Sabir told Boston Public Radio on Wednesday. “What happened in our case was that an assistant medical examiner made a finding. And then, frankly, was lobbied extensively by witnesses for the defense, and changed her finding before the case went to trial. And she was able to do that without any kind of oversight from the chief medical examiner.”
He said that, at the time of Rehma’s death, the chief medical examiner supported the independence of the assistant medical examiners on his team. The proposed legislation would subject a medical examiner’s findings — and any change to an autopsy report — to review and approval by the chief medical examiner.
“What we’re really trying to do is drive two things. One is accuracy,” Sabir continued. “Child cases are complicated, they’re difficult, they’re not the same as adult cases. And a sanity check or a second pair of eyes is important. And the second thing is accountability.”
The legislation is now headed to the Massachusetts Senate, where it’s expected to pass.
“We’re finally at the point where, for once, it looks like something could come out of this,” Siddiqui said. “And there’s a way to prevent other families from having to go through this, and that’s worth my discomfort.”