BOWLING GREEN — A Wayne County man was not responsible for the gruesome death of his 20-month-old son, who drank drain cleaner allegedly used to make methamphetamine, a jury ruled Friday.
The jury acquitted Bryan Daniels, 22, of murder in the May 30, 2009, death of his son Kayden, as well as an alternate charge of second-degree manslaughter.
After deliberating nearly seven hours, the jury also found Daniels not guilty on charges of endangering Kayden and of being involved in a criminal syndicate to produce meth.
Circuit Judge Vernon Miniard Jr. earlier ruled Daniels not guilty on a charge of making meth.
Daniels and members of his family and defense team, led by Somerset attorney Mark Stanziano, burst into tears and hugged when Miniard announced the verdict.
Daniels has served 44 months in jail or on house arrest since Kayden died and faced a sentence of 20 years to life if convicted of murder.
Instead, he left the courthouse a free man nearly four years after his son's death. Daniels was tried in Warren Circuit Court in Bowling Green because a jury could not be seated in Wayne County.
Daniels said the first thing he plans to do is visit Kayden's grave, which he has never seen.
"I'm very happy, very happy," Daniels said. "Kayden was with me today. He knowed I wouldn't do nothing to hurt him."
Daniels said he has a job lined up remodeling restaurants in Indiana, and he said he will try to improve his life.
Daniels said he shouldn't have been charged with causing his son's death.
Commonwealth's Attorney Matthew Leveridge had no comment on the verdict.
However, he said he will prosecute three others charged in connection with Kayden's death. They are Danny Anderson Jr. and James Hunt, who allegedly made meth in the bedroom of the small mobile home where Kayden lived and are charged with murder, and Larry Branham, who rented the trailer and allegedly facilitated the crimes.
Two people, Alisha Dicken and Wesley Bell, pleaded guilty earlier to lesser charges.
Kayden's mother, Alisha Branham, also was charged in his death, but her case was handled confidentially in juvenile court. She was 14 when he died.
Kayden ingested a type of drain cleaner called Liquid Fire, which contains sulfuric acid. It is one ingredient used in the process of making meth in small, crude labs fashioned from plastic bottles.
The drain cleaner had been left behind in a coffee cup at the small mobile home where Daniels and Branham had been staying with the boy.
Kayden and his mother were supposed to be living with her mother, Melissa Branham, while being monitored by a state social worker. However, Alisha Branham said she had moved to her father's small trailer with Kayden so she could take better care of him after her mother's electricity and water were cut off.
Dicken, a recovering meth addict, testified that she saw Anderson making meth at the trailer on the day Kayden died.
Daniels and Branham had taken Kayden away from the trailer while others were making meth there, and Branham testified she cleaned up in an effort to make sure there was nothing that could harm Kayden before bringing him home late that evening.
The coffee cup with the poisonous cleaner in it remained on a small table in the bedroom where Kayden and his parents slept, however.
Daniels did not testify at his trial, but he told police he saw the cup and thought it had juice in it.
Kayden picked up the cup; Daniels took it from him but put it back down on the table where Kayden could reach it.
As his mother dressed for bed and his father went to the kitchen to get the boy some juice, Kayden grabbed the cup again and took a drink, according to testimony. He died an hour later because of severe internal injuries caused by the acid.
The murder charge against Daniels did not allege that he intentionally killed his son, but rather that he acted in a way that put Kayden at grave risk and ignored the danger.
Leveridge told jurors in his closing argument Friday that Daniels knew there was Liquid Fire in the cup but disregarded the risk to Kayden.
Leveridge suggested Daniels did that because he was impaired.
In interviews played for jurors, Daniels admitted he snorted some methamphetamine and smoked marijuana the day Kayden died, and took some pain pills the night before.
"His conduct resulted in Kayden's death," Leveridge said.
Leveridge noted Daniels initially lied to police about some details, questioning why he did that if he had nothing to hide.
And he suggested Daniels could have gotten rid of the cup Kayden drank from before police arrived. Police did not find the cup.
Daniels told police he couldn't make Anderson and others stop making meth at the trailer because he did not control the trailer.
Daniels had told police he hadn't reported the meth production becase he wasn't a "snitch," Leveridge told jurors — an indication his reputation was more important to him than trying to end meth production in the bedroom where his child slept.
But Stanziano reminded jurors that Daniels and his girlfriend took Kayden away from the trailer to protect him while others used it to make meth. It wouldn't make sense to think Daniels would then allow Kayden to drink Liquid Fire, Stanziano said.
Daniels could not have known the cup contained a caustic chemical, Stanziano said. "This was an accident," he said.
Daniels and Branham made some bad decisions, Stanziano said, but they cared for their son. Anderson and Larry Branham were the real culprits in Kayden's death, Stanziano said.
Kayden's agonizing death reverberated around Kentucky as police and others began pushing for changes aimed at reducing the growing number of homemade meth labs in the state. Advocates used his story in trying to get lawmakers to require a prescription for cold and allergy medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth.
Lawmakers in 2012 approved lower limits on the amount people can buy without a doctor's order.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1