TAMPA — Katrina Brooks walked into the Hillsborough County courthouse Monday expecting to learn her sentence for neglecting her 9-month-old son, who drowned in an overflowing bathtub.
Instead, she walked out a free woman.
Circuit Judge William Fuente granted a defense motion for acquittal on the child neglect charge, overruling a jury verdict. Brooks' public defender, Samantha Ward, had argued that mere carelessness or negligence didn't rise to the level of a crime, citing case law to bolster her stance.
Brooks, 21, originally was charged with manslaughter for leaving her son, Gene Vincent Kent, in a bathtub with his 2-year-old sister Aug. 3, 2007, while she chatted with her aunt in a nearby room. The aunt said the two talked for 20 to 30 minutes before Brooks found the child lifeless in the tub.
In May, jurors convicted her on a lesser count of child neglect.
In his written order for acquittal, Fuente said he found that Brooks didn't willfully seek to violate the law.
The judge instructed jurors at the May trial that culpable negligence — which was required to find Brooks guilty of the lesser charge of child neglect — was more than a failure to use ordinary care towards others. Prosecutors had to prove that Brooks showed a gross and flagrant character and a reckless disregard of human life or the safety of a person exposed to danger.
"The evidence is insufficient as a matter of law to warrant a conviction of the offense of felony child neglect," Fuente wrote. "It is insufficient to establish 'culpably negligent' child neglect, or 'willful' child neglect."
The child neglect conviction left Brooks facing up to five years in prison Monday, but she might have gotten as little as probation because she had no prior convictions.
Now free, she's focused on getting her life back and reuniting with her daughter, who has been in foster care since the baby's death.
Ward said Brooks has complied with all the requirements to regain custody and expects to do so soon.
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.