Suspect in Courtroom - Photo courtesy of Gorodenkoff on Shutterstock

A state appeals court panel Wednesday upheld a South Los Angeles man’s conviction for his 4-year-old daughter’s drowning death in a walk-in bathtub.

The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to support Charles Richard Lee’s conviction on one count each of second-degree murder and assault on a child causing death stemming from the Dec. 2, 2018, drowning of his daughter, Zaraellia Thompson.

“Reviewing the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution, ample evidence supports a finding Lee held Zaraellia under the water until she drowned,” the panel found in its 18-page ruling. “In addition to the medical examiner’s expert testimony that Zaraellia’s contemporaneous injuries were consistent with being held against the bathtub, he also opined that such injuries are typically not seen in accidental drowning cases and most drowning victims are found floating face down in the water rather than resting their heads out of the water.”

Lee spoke to Los Angeles Police Department detectives at the hospital where his daughter was taken and then went back to the house for a videotaped “re-creation” in which he told police that he briefly left the girl to get a towel and returned to find her unresponsive in the tub.

Firefighter/paramedic Jesse Pena, who responded to a 911 call about the girl’s drowning, testified during the trial that he scooped the girl up from a dark bedroom and took her outside to a gurney, where he could see that she had “different types of wounds throughout her body.”

“They were something that was very abnormal,” Pena told jurors. “We saw the wounds. They were in different stages of healing.”

Pena testified that the girl’s father — who rode in the ambulance as she was taken to the hospital — initially said the other injuries were about two days old and then said they were about two weeks old.

The man explained that the girl had been to the beach with her mother and might have gotten an infection from the sand or water, and that she liked to sit next to a heater and could have burned herself, but that he didn’t know how she had drowned, according to the prosecution’s first witness.

The defendant’s mother testified that Lee had introduced the girl to her as his daughter that year, and that she didn’t know anything was wrong that day until she heard the sound of fire engines.

The girl — who had been dropped off a few weeks earlier at her father’s home and hadn’t lived with him for the first years of her life — died at a hospital after paramedics were summoned to the house in the 1500 block of East 42nd Street.

Lee, who was 23 at the time, was arrested that day and has remained behind bars since then.

Deputy District Attorney Colby Cano told the downtown Los Angeles jury that the evidence against Lee was “overwhelming.”

The prosecutor questioned whether it was “reasonable” to think that Zaraellia drowned “accidentally” and not as a result of Lee’s conduct, given a series of fresh injuries and others, including scalding injuries, that Cano had described earlier as “days to weeks old.”

Lee’s attorney, Michael Many, countered that the girl’s death was a “terrible accident.”

“There’s nothing to suggest he snapped,” the defense lawyer told jurors in urging them to “follow the law.”

Lee, now 27, is serving a 25-years-to-life term for the girl’s death.

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