TAMPA — A 6-year-old boy bravely tried to tell a jury Wednesday how he and his 4-year-old sister ended up severely beaten, covered in welts and bruises last year.
He was the prosecution's star witness. His sister was too little to testify. He tried to tell, but seemed confused. All he could manage was: "Big James whupped me."
It wasn't enough. It left too many questions, too many doubts. "Big James" did indeed whip him, but did someone else whip the children again, only worse?
After deliberating for three hours, a jury found "Big James" — James Moore, 28, ex-boyfriend of the children's mother — not guilty of child abuse.
Jurors reached their verdict after indicating they wanted to know what the mother, Danielle Blair, 27, knew. But she did not appear in court Wednesday. Prosecutors wouldn't say why.
It was an ending to a trial that began when Moore's attorney, 76-year-old Delano Stewart, announced to the jury that he was not prepared for trial, and that to go forward was "a miscarriage of justice."
Stewart, who has practiced law in Tampa for 47 years, was hired only on Monday after Moore fired his public defender at the last minute. He was refused a continuance, partly because Moore has had a year to prepare for trial and because of the children's young ages.
Stewart railed before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, saying, "Put me in contempt. I'm not going to sacrifice my client's life because I'm not prepared." He said forcing him to try the case was "involuntary servitude," a violation of the 13th Amendment.
Ficarrotta never tried to interrupt him. After, he simply said, "Call the first witness."
The jury heard from a sheriff's deputy called to the home on Sept. 1, 2011, when the boy was 5 and the girl was 3. He took photos of several bruises on the boy's torso and arms, but concluded they weren't enough to constitute child abuse.
Jurors then heard from a nurse who examined the boy and his sister the next day, Sept. 2. She photographed a very different condition — livid bruises and welts across the backsides and legs of both children, including cuts and bruises around the girl's private areas.
The injuries, she said, constituted child abuse "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Their grandmother, Aquilla Blair, who now has custody of the children, said they told her Moore had beaten them once because they hadn't cleaned up their room, and again after they talked to the deputy.
But on the witness stand, the boy was unable to say whether there had been one beating or two, or whether someone else beat them.
Moore, who chose to testify, said his girlfriend, Danielle Blair, had asked him to whip the boy on Sept. 1 because he'd gotten into her purse.
"I reprimanded him four or five times with the belt, then he went to school," Moore said. "I don't know anything about injuries to the kids."
Moore said he never touched the girl.
The jury could never be sure who did.
"Where's the mother of the children?" attorney Stewart repeatedly asked in his closing argument. Assistant State Attorney Courtney Derry said, "We don't have a burden to prove anything about the mother."
Efforts by the Tampa Bay Times to locate her were unsuccessful.
In deliberations, the jurors sent a note to the judge, basically asking the same question. They asked if the mother had ever made any statements to anyone. The judge said he couldn't answer that.
So, an hour later, they acquitted Moore.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or email@example.com.