The 12-year-old Tampa boy packed his suitcase before his sentencing Wednesday in Marietta, Ga., where he was convicted last month of battery in the death of his infant cousin. He could have spent the next two years in juvenile detention.
Instead, to the relief of his family, a judge sentenced him to two years of probation.
The boy, whose name is being kept secret by court order, was visiting relatives near Atlanta on July 4 when he got into a car with his mother's 22-year-old first cousin Brittiany Young and her 5-week-old daughter Millan. 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 was limp. She died the following day.
Prosecutors called the boy a murderer. A medical examiner listed two types of brain hemorrhages, retinal hemorrhages, bruising and unrelated fractures on opposite sides of her head. The doctor said the baby could not have died in an accident, but must have been held firmly, shaken and slammed at least twice against a hard, flat surface.
Judge A. Gregory Poole ruled the boy must have committed some act of violence out of frustration with the crying infant. But he concluded that the boy didn't understand the horrific consequences of his actions, so Poole convicted him on two lesser counts of battery.
Had the boy been guilty of murder, he would have spent the next nine years in detention.
After receiving his verdict last month, the boy asked the judge if he could go home. The judge reserved that decision until Wednesday. The answer is yes.
The boy's Tampa grandmother, Joyce Hightower, told the Times she wept when she heard it. The boy told her, "Don't cry, it's over."
But Hightower doesn't think he understands the lasting effects of the events of this year. He needs counseling, she says. He's more distant and withdrawn, and at his great-aunt's home recently, he asked permission to go to the bathroom. He never used to.
"It's like he's afraid," she said. "He needs to be with family, and he needs a lot of love."
He will live with Felicia Blair, his great-aunt in Georgia, who has started looking for a psychologist and private school the boy can attend. Hightower said that people in Tampa are more likely to know the boy's history. She feels her sister's home is stable and that the boy will benefit from a two-parent household.
"It'll give him more of a sense of a fresh start," Hightower said. "He needs this."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.