MARIETTA, Ga. — The 12-year-old Tampa boy sat in the Cobb County Juvenile Courthouse Friday morning, still an accused baby murderer. A few hours later, he chomped on potato chips and Skittles and asked to go to the all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral. He told his family he had plans for his future.
"I want to be a judge," he said. "I want to go to Harvard."
This announcement came after one made by Judge A. Gregory Poole: The boy was not guilty of murder and child cruelty in the July death of his 5-week-old cousin, Millan Young. He was guilty of a lesser offense, two counts of battery, which could carry a two-year sentence, served either in a detention center, a group home, or as probation while living with family. The sentence will come with counseling.
The judge will decide it on Jan. 6.
Had the boy been convicted of murder, he would have faced nine years in detention.
As they prepared to leave the courthouse, the boy's grandmother wrapped him in a tight hug and told him, "See how God delivered you?"
He responded, "Yes, ma'am."
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For three days, lawyers tried to convince a judge of what they thought happened inside a parked car on July 4.
The boy, his name kept secret by court order, was visiting relatives near Atlanta when he got into a car with his mother's 22-year-old first cousin Brittiany Young and her infant daughter. Young stopped at Target to get food and left the car running.
When she returned, she testified, the boy was playing on his cell phone. The radio was turned up. And the baby's mouth was swollen. Her lips were blue. Her eyes were hard to the touch. She was limp and not breathing. The baby died the following day.
Three doctors testified about the child's injuries: two types of brain hemorrhages, retinal hemorrhages, unrelated fractures on opposite sides of her head, and bruising of the mouth and other parts of her body. Tissue on her upper lip was bruised, something that happens when babies are force-fed.
They said the injuries weren't accidental but couldn't determine who caused them. The medical examiner called it a homicide, finding that the child must have been held firmly, shaken and slammed at least twice against a hard, flat surface.
Crime lab tests found no physical evidence in the car. Prosecutors had testimony that the baby was acting normally before the mother left the car and was unresponsive when she returned.
In closing statements Friday, defense attorney Derek Wright tried to convince the judge that prosecutors didn't prove the boy was the murderer. He said he could make a case against the baby's mother, noting that several emergency responders said Young was acting unusually calm when they arrived, but that the boy was sobbing and pacing. He suggested the possibility that the baby was injured at the mother's home minutes away but didn't show signs of trauma until the parking lot.
The baby's mother sat in the courtroom on a bench closest to the door. She stared ahead with tears in her eyes as Wright said she could have let her cousin take the blame.
Prosecutor Eleanor Odom argued that the baby's mother didn't appear distraught because she didn't yet know the extent of the baby's injuries, but that the boy already did.
Odom took a blood-stained, pink onesie out of an evidence bag and showed it to the judge.
"You can see the size, how big Millan really was," Odom said. "I think this speaks more words than those pictures ever could."
Dressed in a shirt and tie, the skinny, dimpled boy stayed calm as the judge delivered his verdict: "I find beyond a reasonable doubt that Millan suffered major trauma during the 18 minutes the juvenile was alone with the baby. … I find that the juvenile caused the injuries and that the baby later died as a result of the trauma.
"Now, what do I think happened? This child was left alone with the baby. I don't know that should have happened, but it did …
"Millan, a child he really didn't know, started crying, and it got louder …
"He didn't know what to do. I think he was scared. He tried using the pacifier to make this baby stop crying. It didn't work. What did he do next?
"He got out the bottle of water … He gives it to the baby. The baby won't be quiet. Turns up the radio so he won't have to hear this baby crying. That didn't work. He might have even turned it up again. Well, the pink pacifier didn't work. Let's use the purple pacifier …
"This juvenile was trying to get the baby to quit crying. … He was scared, and he didn't know what to do. … I wouldn't expect him to know what to do.
"I find that in order to get the baby to be quiet, using his own means as a 12-year-old, that he committed batteries, plural, against this baby …
"Did this child mean that his actions would kill Millan? No …
"Technically, I think I can find possibly if I wanted to go further, some type of an involuntary manslaughter. In my mind, I've still got to place this child with some expectation, some appreciation for the horrific damage that it has done, and I find nothing along those lines.
"Did he do wrong? Oh yeah, he did. I wish it hadn't happened, but it did."
Once the judge stopped talking, the boy started to cry. His parents embraced him, also in tears. His mother smiled.
The baby's mother left the courtroom after the verdict and declined to comment. The boy's grandmother said the family planned to gather at Brittiany Young's home later that day.
The judge needed to decide where the boy would stay until the sentencing. He was originally locked up in a juvenile detention center, but later transferred to a secured group home.
A representative from the group home told the judge the boy had a tough transition into his school and, due to the stresses of his case, sometimes shut down emotionally. But he said the boy was a role model and standout student.
The judge allowed him to return to the group home and said he was welcome to visit with family. He told the boy his behavior in the next month will be important in deciding a sentence. The boy promised to be good.
Then, the boy's attorney told the family, "Y'all go breathe."
• • •
The boy's grandmother, Joyce Hightower, couldn't sleep Thursday night. She'd driven from Tampa earlier that day and spent the night reading news about the case and praying.
Now, holding her grandson's hand, she asked him how he felt.
"Good," he told her. "Anxious."
"Anxious for what?" she asked.
He said, "To go home."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 310-2081.