PRINCETON — A Caldwell County jury convicted Jesse Allison on Thursday of reckless homicide for the death of his infant daughter. The jury recommended five years in prison.
Allison faced charges ranging from murder to reckless homicide in connection with the September 2009 death of 7-month-old Ariel. A jury deadlocked during his first trial last September. One juror said afterward that the jury was split 6-6.
Before Ariel's death, Allison was convicted of beating his three-month-old son in Virginia in 2000.
He pleaded guilty to two counts of child neglect in 2000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and he served probation instead, according to court records in Norfolk, Va.
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In Kentucky, another of Allison's daughters, Erin, was found dead in her bed of undetermined causes in 2008, when she was 22 months old.
In March, the Lexington Herald-Leader made a request under the Open Records Act to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release specific child-protection records about Jesse Allison, but the request was denied.
On Thursday, jurors had four options if they determined that Allison was guilty of causing Ariel's death: intentional murder, wanton murder, second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide. If convicted of wanton or intentional murder, Allison could have faced up to life in prison.
"This was a difficult case to prove and was based largely on circumstantial evidence," Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Carrie Ovey-Wiggins said. "In the end, I am satisfied with the jury's decision. It was an attentive jury that worked hard to reach this decision."
Ovey-Wiggins said she had not spoken to Ariel's mother, Marae Allison, about the verdict or sentence. She said she had not spoken to jurors to find out what evidence shaped their verdict.
She explained during her closing statement that the options differ by what degree the jury thinks Allison was responsible for Ariel's death. Ovey-Wiggins said that even if jurors decided that he might not have intentionally killed Ariel, his actions, or lack thereof, before her death might have led to it.
Jack Faust, one of Allison's attorneys, delivered the closing argument for the defense. He asked jurors to find Allison not guilty, telling them to look at the lack of proof the commonwealth had.
"The only thing they have is they choose to disbelieve Jesse," he said.
Faust also told jurors that the state failed to say how Allison committed the crime. He likened the allegation to a game of Clue, stating that investigators simply looked at the evidence in the room and pinned the fault on Allison because he was the last person with Ariel.
He focused on one of the state's strongest arguments: that Ariel's injuries were not consistent with Allison's story. Allison told investigators he found his daughter lifeless on the side of her crib, with her legs dangling over the floor and her body wedged between the bars and the mattress. Faust told jurors that the lack of something does not constitute hard evidence.
"What objective evidence do you have that indicates Jesse did anything?" Faust asked the jurors.
Ovey-Wiggins said during her closing argument that Dr. Deirdre Schluckebier, who performed the autopsy on Ariel, testified that Ariel was intentionally asphyxiated with a pillow or blanket. Schluckebier based that determination on fibers that investigators found in and near the child's mouth.
The commonwealth began to describe a theory of Ariel's death. Before Faust interrupted the story with an objection, Ovey-Wiggins said Allison might have picked up a pillow or blanket while trying to quiet Ariel, and then it went too far.
Testimony from witnesses and Allison himself during interviews with police indicated that he napped for roughly four hours that morning after putting Ariel down for a nap just a couple of hours after she woke up from about 11 hours of sleep.
Allison's defense team called board-certified forensic pathologist Dr. George Nichols II as its only new witness before closing arguments began Thursday. Nichols testified that Ariel died of asphyxiation as a result of being trapped or wedged somewhere. He reviewed the autopsy report and photos and determined that the death was accidental. His testimony conflicted with that of Schluckebier, who ultimately changed her initial cause of death as undetermined to intentional asphyxiation.
Allison did not testify during the trial.
Caldwell Circuit Judge C.A. "Woody" Woodall III will sentence Allison on July 3. Ovey-Wiggins said she supported the jury's recommendation of a five-year prison sentence.