TAMPA — After two days of testimony from medical experts and law enforcement officials, the would-be weapon used to kill 3-year-old Alexis Garcia remains a mystery.
But for the jury, the graphic images of Garcia's twice-fractured skull and the knowledge that his sole caretaker that day in May 2010 was his mother's boyfriend were enough. It didn't matter whether the boyfriend, Michell Blanco, 31, had used his fist or a baseball bat.
After five hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty Thursday of child abuse and second-degree murder, for which he could be sentenced to life in prison. Blanco was charged with first-degree murder, though jurors could also consider second-degree murder and manslaughter.
"That little boy told you, his body told you what happened to him," prosecutor Rita Peters said in her closing statement. Blanco "did something to that child that caused him to die."
Blanco's attorney, Rick Hermida, said the case was an example of police officers and doctors rushing to judgement and hastily labeling the boy a victim of child abuse.
"This becomes just another mama's-boyfriend-did-it case," in the minds of law enforcement officials, he said.
Speaking after the verdict, Hermida said he was disappointed, but gratified that the jury had rejected the first-degree murder charge, which would have come with a mandatory life sentence. Blanco's sentencing is set for early June.
In the defense's narrative, Blanco was babysitting the toddler at the couple's apartment on N Dale Mabry Highway while the boy's mother, Itzaira DeJesus, 25, went to work cleaning houses in Brandon. Garcia was chasing ducks near a pond behind the apartment complex when he fell on a concrete walkway and hit his head on a footbridge's wooden railing. The sudden impact sent the boy flying backward onto the concrete, Hermida said, adding, "what really happened wasn't a simple fall."
But doctors testified that it was highly unlikely that a 3-year-old's pliable skull, built to weather the traumas of birth and the playground, would crack in two places from a fall. His injuries would have made sense if he'd been in a high-speed car accident or hit with a blunt object, assistant medical examiner Leszek Chrostowski testified. Even if the toddler had been running at top speed, as the defense claimed, it was doubtful Garcia could generate enough momentum to do significant damage on impact, Chrostowski said.
Reflecting on the verdict, Anibal Nieves, 55, the toddler's paternal grandfather, said he was relieved the four-year legal saga had ended in a satisfying conviction. He'd hardly known his grandson, he said, but the boy's death still felt like a wound, re-opened every time the trial was postponed.
"We didn't see the kid for three years," Nieves said, "but he was ours."