After hearing several hours of testimony Thursday and deliberating into Friday, a Fayette County jury found Leamon Wesner guilty of wanton murder in the death of his girlfriend's toddler.
The jury recommended Wesner serve 20 years. He will be sentenced next month.
The verdict came after a full day of testimony, which included hearing from Wesner.
Wesner, 32, was on trial for murder in the November 2008 death of 2-year-old Jessica Nolan.
Jessica died the night of Nov. 25, after she was removed from life support. She had head injuries, bruises over much of her body and a torn muscle in her spine, according to witnesses. According to testimony, Wesner, a tattoo artist from Ohio, began living with Jessica and her mother just a few weeks before Jessica died.
Jackie Nolan, who paid the bills by working at a pizza restaurant, had gone downtown to pick up a free bus pass to use for getting to and from work and returned to find her daughter had been injured, the mother testified this week. Jackie Nolan said Wesner asked her if Jessica was prone to seizures when she returned to their apartment on Michigan Street.
Wesner took the witness stand Thursday afternoon to explain to jurors discrepancies and omissions in his accounts of what happened that day.
Wesner said he didn't have time to tell a paramedic everything that had happened to the child because he was too busy trying to follow her instructions on how to resuscitate Jessica. He said paramedics who arrived at the scene a few minutes later told him to shut up as he tried to tell them about events that occurred just before Jessica became unresponsive. And he said a police detective tried to confuse him during interrogation while he was trying to process what happened that morning.
"He's trying to confuse me and I'm trying to put everything together," Wesner said.
Wesner said that on the morning of Nov. 25, 2008, Jessica fell out of a bathtub and hit her head as he went to get a towel from another room to dry her. He said he hit the child after she threw cereal at him, but it was more like a "love tap," a "quit that" type of smack. And he said he fell on top of her while he was trying to do a skateboard maneuver inside their Lexington apartment. He said he did not intentionally hurt the toddler.
Wesner agreed with Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kimberly Henderson Baird that he told police he smacked Jessica too hard that day. But Wesner said he told police that because that's what they said he did, so he agreed to it. He said when he tried to tell police about the skateboard incident, an officer told him to leave that out, so he did.
Henderson Baird asked Wesner if he remembered the detective asking him why he was acting like he was crying and if Wesner remembered answering because he was frustrated. Wesner said yes, then said he wasn't crying like the officer wanted him to.
Wesner said he not only cried that day, he also prayed.
Henderson Baird showed Wesner photos of the dead child and, with each photo, asked him if he remembered how she got the particular injuries depicted in the photo.
"No, I do not," he said in most instances.
At one point, Wesner was given a plastic doll to demonstrate how Jessica's body was positioned after he fell on her during the alleged skateboard incident. "If I had another doll I could show you how I landed on her," he said.
Prosecutors showed images of some 40 injuries, which they said occurred within less than three hours. Earlier in the trial, they called three doctors to testify about the extent of Jessica's injuries.
Prosecutor Kathy Phillips pointed out in her closing argument that many of the bruises and injuries were inconsistent with bruising from a typical fall in the bathtub — or an injury in the skateboarding incident as Wesner described.
Phillips also said there were discrepancies in Wesner's statements to investigators and his testimony. She cited differences in retelling the skateboarding incident, reasons for smacking Jessica and how she fell in the bathtub.
But defense attorney Bob Friedman said the conflicting accounts were a result of the stress and frustration Wesner was dealing with at the time of the incident, saying officers and paramedics led the interviews in the direction they wanted, and Wesner told them what he thought they wanted to hear.
Friedman asked the jury to consider Wesner's 11th-grade education level when considering why he said he waited to call 911.
Defense attorneys asked jurors to view the evidence in its entirety and to avoid making a decision based on instinct to attempt to justify Jessica's death.
"Don't indulge your natural desire to set the world aright," Friedman told the jury in his closing argument. "This was not a murder. It was not a result of intentional acts."