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Dead baby's short life is measured in pain

BROOKSVILLE — When paramedics rushed Hunter Morris to Brooksville Regional Hospital in the early morning darkness, bruises covered his tiny body.

Hospital staffers detailed injuries to the baby's forehead, neck, chest, back, arms, stomach and legs. One of his ribs was fractured. There was retinal hemorrhaging in both of his eyes.

After being taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, placed on a respirator and twice declared brain dead, Hunter was taken off life support.

The medical examiner determined that he died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Ultimately, his mother's boyfriend would go to prison under a plea deal that said David McBurnett Jr., 20, was guilty of manslaughter by culpable negligence, an ambiguous legal term that neither directly accuses nor absolves him of the fatal abuse.

Many other adults in Hunter's short life — his mother, family members, family friends — witnessed some of the abuse he was enduring, records show, but no one sought to save him by going to authorities.

And while investigators disagree on whether the case is still open, a year has passed and no one else has been charged. This legal limbo, legal experts say, is a frustration that often occurs in cases of infanticide.

"Sometime, that's the way it works out," said Stephen Garvey, a criminal law professor at Cornell University Law School. "You know one of (the parents) must have done it. But sometimes you can't prove it."

"Baby homicides are one of the worst types (of homicides) to prosecute because the child can not speak for himself," said Hernando's chief homicide prosecutor, Pete Magrino. "The baby cannot take steps to defend itself because of age and its frailty."

Hunter Morris lost his battle for survival on Sept. 12, 2009. His chaotic, painful life lasted all of 374 days.

I. Hunter's early days

Breanna Underwood gave birth to Hunter on Sept. 3, 2008, at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. His father, Charles Morris, wondered whether the child was even his.

He demanded a paternity test, but Underwood said there was no doubt Morris was the father.

"I wanted to be a father to the baby," Morris said. "I just wanted to know the truth though."

Underwood, Morris and Hunter moved in with Morris' family in Starke, but the relationship didn't last long, and soon mother and child were moving on.

In a sense, Hunter was reliving his mother's life.

Raised as one of three children, Underwood has shuffled from living with her mother, Antoinette Underwood, in Hernando County, her father in Gainesville and other relatives in Starke.

Underwood, records show, said her mother was abusive and a heavy drug user, and that she was removed from her mother's custody at 15. Multiple attempts to reach Antoinette Underwood were unsuccessful. In court depositions, she denied allegations of physical abuse and drug use.

Underwood dropped out of school in the 10th grade when she got pregnant with Hunter. Morris, also a high school dropout, was a 19-year-old laborer whom she had been dating for a few months.

"He was all right when I first met him," Underwood said. "But he wasn't clear in his mind. Me and him, we broke up and got back together. He kept coming back to me instead of finding someone else."

After several months, Underwood moved out and went to stay with her father in Gainesville.

Morris said he lost contact with her after moving to Alabama to work. During the few months they lived together, Morris said, he determined that Underwood was unfit to be a mother.

"She was lazy, don't want to do nothing," Morris said. "I don't think that she wanted to be a mom."

Nearly everyone agrees Underwood was unprepared for the challenges of motherhood. Family members and friends spoke of her struggles with epilepsy and attention-deficit disorder.

A few suggested in interviews with the Times and in court documents that her problems go far beyond those ailments.

Her mother: "She's a little slow. … She's not fit."

Her aunt, Elizabeth Riccitelli: "She has mental problems."

McBurnett's father, David McBurnett Sr.: "I think she's touched."

II. Hunter's mid life

Underwood met David McBurnett Jr., in late May of 2009 at his parents' three-bedroom mobile home, which sits on 2 acres along Geronimo Street, just south of the Hernando-Citrus county line near Istachatta. Her mother had been living there.

She was dropped off at the house by her boyfriend at the time, a man referred to in court documents only as "DK." Within a week, Underwood met McBurnett. The next week, in early June, Underwood, McBurnett and Hunter moved into a log cabin near Neff Lake with Underwood's mother.

"I was like, 'Breanna, it's too soon. You just met him,' " Antoinette Underwood said in a court deposition.

In July, McBurnett left on a two-week trip to Ohio to visit family with his mother. When he returned, Antoinette Underwood said, he demanded that Breanna move back to his parents' home with him.

"He was aggressive. He was mean to me," Antoinette Underwood said. "I looked at Breanna and I say, 'Breanna, is that what you wanna do?' She's like, 'Mom, I'm going.' "

They lived together for little more than a month, mostly cloistered in a small bedroom. Before long, things began to sour for the young couple.

McBurnett complained that Underwood never changed Hunter's diaper. Worse, he said, was how she treated Hunter.

She would shake and smack the infant on the hands and feet with sandals out of frustration, he would tell investigators. She would drop Hunter on the floor when he started crying.

According to court records, McBurnett said his parents observed some of the incidents and warned him that he would get in trouble if anything ever happened to Hunter.

But they never contacted the state Department of Children and Families. "Breanna is slow and everyone was hoping that she would become a better mother with help and guidance," McBurnett said.

One of McBurnett's friends, Travis Fleming, told authorities that Underwood abused Hunter so much that he told them not to come over to his home anymore.

"As soon as she started hitting the baby on the head, I walked outside and told David, 'She needs to go. She needs to leave my house,' " Fleming said in a deposition. "It tore me up for about two days, seeing her treat the baby like that."

McBurnett's father worked out of town much of the week. Regina McBurnett, David's mother, mostly kept to herself in a bedroom on the other side of the house. And no one contacted authorities on Hunter's behalf, a point hammered home by the DCF in its investigation.

"David Jr. and Breanna were clearly aware of the abuse being done to Hunter by each of their own personal accounts," said the DCF summary. "No household member took any action to ensure that the harm being caused to Hunter end (sic)."

The DCF determined that McBurnett's parents were culpable through their inaction, writing that "it is clear in the pictures and eyewitness accounts that the marks on Hunter's body and especially on his face would not have been over-looked by any person."

III. Hunter's final days

Just after 1 a.m. Sept. 11, 2009, Underwood pounded on the bedroom door of her boyfriend's parents. Hunter had cried out in the middle of the night. And then he stopped breathing.

McBurnett called 911 while his mother attempted CPR on the little boy, whom they described as "stiff" with his arms and legs "locked."

Hunter was taken first to Brooksville Regional Hospital, then transferred to the hospital in St. Petersburg, where medical personnel noticed the bruises.

Investigators brought McBurnett and Underwood to the Sheriff's Office that night and interviewed them deep into the morning. McBurnett denied beating Hunter, but eventually said he "popped" Hunter a few times to discipline him.

In a separate interview room, Underwood first told detectives that no one had ever hit her son. But as detectives kept prodding her with questions about Hunter's injuries and told her that McBurnett was "putting it on you," Underwood began to implicate her boyfriend in the beatings.

"Hold on," she said hours into the interrogation. "There's one thing I can tell that I seen him do." By the time the interview was over, Underwood told detectives that McBurnett had hit Hunter on the hands and feet with a remote control, struck the infant on the torso and head with a sandal and with his open hand.

McBurnett was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse and booked into the county jail. When Hunter died, the charge was upgraded to murder.

A few days later, McBurnett told authorities that he confessed to protect his girlfriend.

In June, McBurnett pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter by culpable negligence and was sentenced to two years in prison and four years of probation. Under state law, manslaughter by culpable negligence means, among other things, "gross and flagrant character, evincing reckless disregard of human life or of safety of persons exposed to its dangerous effects."

His attorney, Ellis Faught Jr. of Brandon, reiterated that McBurnett's plea was proof that he never physically abused the baby. Faught noted that during the sentencing hearing, McBurnett's plea included the phrase "culpable negligence by omission." Omission, Faught said, is the key word.

"If I had gone to trial, I could have very easily shown that he never touched the child," Faught said. "By omission, he did not take steps to prevent child abuse."

Magrino admitted the case would have been difficult to prove because of inconsistencies in Underwood's testimony and problems with the Sheriff Office's investigation.

"But if you look at the statements McBurnett made to law enforcement," Magrino said, "he did say there were occasions that he abused the child."

Legal experts interviewed by the Times said manslaughter by culpable negligence covers a lot of ground and doesn't make a distinction between caregivers who participate in the abuse or those who allow it to happen.

"It covers a multitude of sins," said Bob Dekle, a retired prosecutor and legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. "But that's the kind of case that I like to prosecute, where the defendant has a contrary interpretation of the facts. It still makes the defendant guilty of the crime he or she is charged with."

Magrino said the investigation into Hunter's death is still ongoing. A Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said the agency considers the case closed.

IV. Today

Underwood, now 20 years old, has found a home with her aunt, in a tidy little mobile home that sits about 75 yards off a dirt road and is nearly obscured by a thicket of trees in the Shady Hills area.

It's a relatively new experience for her, after spending much of her life living out of guest bedrooms, cars and foster homes.

Elizabeth Riccitelli promises things are going to be different for them now, even though money is tight; the two get by mostly on disability checks.

"We're just trying to be peaceful and get our lives together," she said. "None of us have a good past."

In a recent interview, Underwood seemed to be in a trance. She was monotone. She stared straight ahead. She had trouble remembering details. She started one story, trailed off, got distracted and started a new one.

Authorities who interviewed her in the hours and days after Hunter's death repeatedly made note of her "emotionally monotone expression" and responses that were "completely void of any emotion or indication of concern."

Given all of that, Magrino said, Underwood likely would have been an unreliable witness in court.

"If anyone spends any time with her, certainly you see that as opposed to perhaps an intent to mislead on her part, that may in fact be due to her mental state and abilities," he said.

But even through the fog, Underwood maintained that she loved Hunter. She said that she wants to be a mother again someday.

"Not now … but when I get through my mental stages and everything, yes," she said. "Hunter was the most wonderful thing I had. He was the only person I had in my life that made me happy, other than my aunt."

Back at the trailer where Hunter spent his final days, McBurnett's parents are grateful their son avoided a long prison sentence, but adamantly deny that he ever abused the boy. They're convinced that Underwood will eventually face charges for Hunter's death.

"They got enough to put her away. It's going to happen," David McBurnett Sr. said. "They're going to wait until my son gets out, and he's going to be the star witness. The one who is dangerous to children is still out on the streets."

McBurnett is serving his sentence at the Sumter Correctional Institution near Bushnell. He spends his time tending to the grounds, pulling weeds and mowing the grass.

He is set for release on Sept. 11, 2011 — exactly two years after the day he was taken into custody.

Hunter would have celebrated his third birthday just eight days before.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at or (352) 754-6120.

Dead baby's short life is measured in pain 09/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 11:27am]
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