The short but tragic life of abused baby Makenzie Nevarez ended 191 days after she was born.
Her killer now sits in prison.
But Makenzie’s father and grandmother — Christopher Nevarez and Ann McClain — want to hold the agency they say is also to blame for her death accountable: The Broward Sheriff’s Office.
The civil trial, which seeks damages up to $15 million, got underway last week and was turned over to a jury on Tuesday just before 2 p.m.
Makenzie died on Oct. 28, 2016 — just four days after an attack by her mother’s roommate and coworker left her brain dead.
Juan Santos, who pleaded no contest to aggravated manslaughter in 2022, received a prison sentence that will keep him behind bars until March 2031.
“It has taken seven years to get here,” attorney Justin Grosz told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday as his clients wiped away tears. “Christopher deserves closure. And he needs and deserves justice for Makenzie.”
The verdict form asks jurors to decide which parties are to blame and the percentage of responsibility each has in the negligence case — including Makenzie’s father; her grandmother; her two pediatricians and their practice, Personal Care Pediatric; Broward County; and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, whose child protection investigator failed to follow protocol.
The verdict must be unanimous, Broward Circuit Judge Carol-Lisa Phillips told the jury.
The jurors deliberated for less than three hours before asking to go home. Jury deliberations will resume on Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.
During his closing statement, Grosz argued that the Sheriff’s Office shouldered the lion’s share of the blame and should pay 100% of the damages.
“This is a Sheriff’s Office failure,” he told the jury. “This was their job.”
In June 2016, Makenzie’s mother, Keshia Walsh, took her to the hospital after she displayed signs of choking.
In August, Makenzie was back in the hospital with bruises and a black eye. Her mother told doctors she’d fallen off the couch — an unlikely claim, according to an expert witness.
Makenzie was back in the hospital with leg pain on Oct. 13.
After X-rays showed three fractures, the ER doctor reported the case as possible abuse to a state hotline.
Toniele Henry, at the time a child protection investigator for the Sheriff’s Office, showed up to the hospital that night and took less than an hour to conduct her investigation, Grosz told the jury.
“At 11:12 p.m. she talks to mom,” he said. “At 11:36 p.m. she clears this child to go home with Keshia Walsh. On Oct. 24, Makenzie is brought into Broward General with catastrophic injuries.
In 11 days, Toniele Henry never once communicates with (the father or grandmother). Not once in 11 days do they make an effort to find the father.”
Henry did not even bother to write her report on Makenzie until Nov. 18, three weeks after the baby was taken off life support, Grosz said, pointing to a document on the screen.
“An innocent six-month-old girl can never be replaced,” he told jurors. “The bond between a father and daughter can never be replaced. And the pain doesn’t go away. That comes with a heavy, heavy price.”
That price, Grosz argued, should be $15 million.
Michael Piper, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office, argued Makenzie’s father should share 40% of the blame.
In a deposition, he said he was worried for his baby girl’s safety. After the alleged fall off the couch, Mackenzie’s father said he was suspicious.
“But no hotline is called,” Piper told the jury.
The Sheriff’s Office only got word about possible child abuse on Oct. 13, Piper said.
“BSO is called to the hospital late in the evening,” he said. “On Oct. 24, she is brain dead. There’s an 11-day period where BSO is involved. There are others who could have prevented this death and there are others who could have taken action before BSO got involved. Everyone has to answer for their wrongdoing, including Christopher Nevarez.”
Piper argued the Sheriff’s Office should share 20% of the blame, the pediatricians should shoulder 25%, the father 40%, the grandmother 5% and the county 10%.
Piper did not offer the jurors a specific number for damages, but argued that $15 million is “outrageously unreasonable.”
Said Piper: “The evidence does not support an award of millions of dollars.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan