TAMPA — From the moment she walked into the courtroom Tuesday, tears poured from Itzaira DeJesus, whose ex-boyfriend is accused of killing her toddler son nearly four years ago.
On the trial's opening day, she cried as she recalled rushing home from her job as a house cleaner to find her firstborn unable to move and barely breathing. She couldn't afford child care and she couldn't continue to leave the boy with family, she said. So she entrusted the superhero-loving boy to Michell Blanco, 31, her boyfriend of seven months.
Hours later, 3-year-old Alexis Garcia was in her arms, his body limp, DeJesus testified.
"He was just laying there, his eyes were open, but he wasn't staring at anything," she said.
Blanco had called her at work to say that Alexis fell while chasing ducks near the pond behind their apartment on N Dale Mabry Highway. His voice was calm, DeJesus said, as he told her that Alexis wasn't moving.
Alexis died the next morning at St. Joseph's Hospital, but several more days would pass before Hillsborough sheriff's investigators charged Blanco with first-degree murder. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
Defense attorney Ricardo Hermida told the jury in his opening statement that what happened to the toddler was "a tragic accident," misunderstood by law enforcement officers who hastily labeled it child abuse. Alexis fell on a concrete walkway near a bridge that spanned the pond, he said.
"What happened was a rush to judgment. The police overlooked everything else and zeroed in, like a laser, on Mr. Blanco," he said.
A tall, heavy-set man, Blanco sat at the defense table and watched the proceedings, showing almost no emotion as DeJesus wept openly.
The defense focused on DeJesus, singling out statements she made to investigators while her son was in the hospital, some of which she's since recanted. DeJesus told officers then that she was home that day in May 2010 when her son was severely injured. On Tuesday, she explained that she'd covered for Blanco because he'd convinced her that if she didn't, she would lose custody of Alexis.
Other contradictions turned up in statements Blanco made to detectives at the hospital, where he claimed at first that he hadn't seen Alexis fall, said Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Joshua Haimes. In a later interview, Blanco told detectives that he had seen Alexis tumble into a railing and then fall backward, hitting his head a second time, Haimes said.
Pointing to evidence from the boy's autopsy, prosecutors said his injuries couldn't have been caused by the kind of tumble that toddlers take daily. Rather, his multiple concussions and bruised ribs were similar to the trauma suffered by people who survive high-speed car accidents, they said. At the hospital, doctors performed emergency surgery on Alexis, whose skull was fractured in two places.
At first, DeJesus wanted to believe Blanco wasn't to blame.
"That's not possible," she told detectives when they said the boy's injuries weren't consistent with a fall. She doesn't believe that anymore.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.