The Edmond Sun

February 4, 2013

Guilty verdict in child murder case

Mark Schlachtenhaufen
The Edmond Sun

OKLAHOMA CITY — A jury has recommended the maximum sentence for the defendant who stood trial in the death of an Edmond toddler.

At about 3:40 p.m. Monday, the 8-woman, 4-man jury announced they had reached a verdict. They had received the case from Oklahoma County District Judge Glenn Jones at about 1:05 p.m. when closing statements ended.

The defendant, Rico Antwoine Berry, 28, entered the courtroom wearing a dress shirt and tie; he would later leave wearing handcuffs and with the knowledge he had been found guilty on charges of first-degree murder and child neglect.

Regarding the first-degree murder charge, the jury recommended the maximum sentence — life without parole; the other option was life. They also chose the maximum sentence on the child neglect charge — life; the other option was up to one year in jail.

Formal sentencing will be on Feb. 22.

After the reading of the verdict, Sara Babakhani, the mother of Jolen Babakhani, who died when he was 2 years 8 months old, was outside the courtroom in the hall being comforted by family members.

Jurors were not talking. Neither was lead defense attorney James Hughes. Before the reading of the verdict, Hughes and fellow co-defense council Mark McCormick sat with somber expressions at the table with Berry.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Gayland Gieger and ADA Susanne Carlson. Following the end of proceedings, Gieger spoke with reporters.

“Obviously we’re happy with the jury’s deliberations and decisions in this case,” Gieger said. “The trial went on for six days and there was a lot of medical evidence for this jury that was presented. Luckily they were able to listen to the evidence in an intelligent light.”

Gieger said quantifying or doing justice after a child’s life was taken away is a vexing issue, but in this case the defendant is being held accountable for his actions.

Perhaps part of what influenced the decision was the defendant’s initial disregard for the child and then his failure to render aid, Gieger said.

In a video of Berry’s interview with the Edmond detectives they were able to get him to give some explanation about what happened in the unit at the Rolling Green apartment complex on Oct. 13, 2009. The jury was able to hear the defendant’s changing stories, Gieger said.

“I still don’t believe that we heard the whole truth from Mr. Berry,” he said.

As his story changed, Berry became more and more culpable, Gieger said. In cases like this, children don’t suffer horrific injuries absent some type of verifiable accident like a car wreck, he said.

Berry was expected to testify but did not. The defense did not call a single witness.

Edmond Police Detective Michael Chesley was the lead investigator on the case. Chesley said he is pleased with the decision that the jury made. It was a long six days, but jurors used their common sense to weigh the evidence that was presented to them, he said.

“They made the right decision,” he said.

The prosecutors managed the trial well, and the defense could not refute the state’s evidence, Chesley said. He said Jolen’s family members will likely always have thoughts about what happened to the toddler in the back of their minds.

“I hope this helps them a little bit,” he said.



CLOSING STATEMENTS

At about 11 a.m. Judge Jones read the court’s instructions to the jury, agreed upon with several objections by the defense.

Then Carlson addressed the jury. Since the state has the burden of proof, a prosecutor goes first, followed by the defense and then the prosecution argues again. Carlson described the anguish of a mother who was in the stage of life when she would be teaching a nursery rhyme to her child. Sara Babakhani thought she had a lifetime to spend with Jolen, Carlson said. She never dreamed her son would not grow up and live a full life, she said.

Berry abused Jolen and he died as a result, Carlson said. The toddler may not be here in person to say Rico hurt me, but the injuries to Jolen’s body tell you all you need to know about who killed him, she said to the jury.

“This is not a case of whodunnit, ladies and gentlemen,” she said.

Carlson took the jurors through some of the evidence, which included graphic hospital and autopsy photographs of the injuries to Jolen’s head, neck, back and brain. She mentioned elements the state had to prove which had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, she said.

She referred to two spots of blood on two different walls in the apartment. A DNA expert said they were Jolen’s blood. She mentioned first responders who testified they saw blood in Jolen’s mouth, which meant he was bleeding internally.

Through the forensic evidence, Carlson said, “Jolen Babakhani can still tell you today that unreasonable force was used against him.”

Hughes argued that Sara trusted Berry enough with her son to let him move in with them. Hughes tried to poke holes in the blood found in the apartment, implying that not all of it was Jolen’s.

He sought to raise doubt by repeating his theory that some of the bruises on Jolen’s back could have been due to earlier falls and the force of CPR chest compressions on a parking lot; Gieger argued there should have been bruises on Jolen’s chest if that was the case. Hughes also mentioned multiple times Jolen fell.

“It was an accident,” Hughes said of Jolen’s death.

He urged the jury to send Berry home. Berry was playing with Jolen and something terrible happened under his watch, Hughes said. The acts were not murder, not child abuse, he said.

Gieger defended the first responders who were trying to save the child’s life while Berry was emotionless. Gieger said the defendant never offered to render aid to Jolen and only began to tell limited truth when he was pressed over and over again by the detectives.



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