The death of a three-year-old girl last fall during an apparent exorcism at a backroom San Jose church has been officially ruled a homicide, according to the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's Office.
Authorities say the girl died during an exorcism-type ceremony performed by the girl's family, who believed she was possessed by an evil spirit. The church where she died is the same one that was searched last week after a 3-month-old baby was kidnapped from a home. The victim's grandfather is a pastor there.
The medical examiner's office concluded the cause of death was asphyxia due to suffocation.
Authorities make that ruling when they believe the death was caused by the actions of another person. It's not a legal conclusion and doesn't necessarily mean anyone will face murder charges.
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The victim's mother, Claudia Hernandez, was arrested in January on felony child abuse charges and remains in custody without bail. She declined NBC Bay Area's request to speak with her from jail.
According to court documents NBC Bay Area exclusively obtained last week, Hernandez and the girl's uncle brought her to the church last September, believing she was possessed by a demon because she would sometimes wake up at night screaming or crying.
According to the family's statement to police, the three family members held the girl down for seven hours, repeatedly forcing her to throw up in an attempt to, they say, rid her body of the evil spirit.
Investigators say Hernandez did not attempt to call for any medical help for at least two hours after the child died.
When police arrived, they found the girl with multiple injuries around her eyes, face, neck and chest. They said she had been given nothing, except about six ounces of water, in the 20 hours leading up to her death.
Hernandez faces a potential life sentence is convicted.
San Jose police declined to discuss the case, saying it remains under investigation.