The young man in the Air Force uniform sat stoically as the jury's verdict was read: not guilty in the death of the 1-year-old girl who had been left in his care. Then, Dwayne Lee Watson lay his head on the defense table, and a half-dozen spectators weeped and hugged each other.
"Thank God," defense attorney Silvio Lufriu said. "You have your life back."
Watson, 28, was charged with manslaughter in the death of Rachel Menozzi, whom he was babysitting on April 26, 1990, the night she died. Her mother Heather Menozzi, a friend of the Watsons', dropped her off at the home the night before.
Watson, an Air Force sergeant stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, admitted that he rubbed and pressed on the child's stomach because she was constipated.
She was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital several hours later. A medical examiner's report said the child died of blunt trauma to her abdomen.
But Watson said he did not believe he delivered the fatal blow.
"If I thought I'd hurt that little girl, she'd have been at the hospital then and there," he testified.
During the trial, Watson's attorney emphasized injuries Rachel apparently suffered previously Several people said they saw bruises on her head, face and legs. A doctor from St. Joseph's testified that the child had suffered a skull fracture, although the medical examiner said he did not see that injury.
Testimony in the case took three days. The jury took three hours to find Watson innocent.
Watson and his attorney cried after the verdict was read.
"I can lead a normal life again," Watson said.
"Justice was served," said Lufriu, who took the case less than two weeks ago.
Watson and his wife, Dawn, said they were going home to spend time with their two daughters, who had been in Mrs. Watson's custody pending the outcome of the trial.
Rachel's parents, Heather and Timothy Menozzi, were separated after Rachel's death. Now divorced, they sat on opposite sides of the courtroom throughout the trial.
Timothy Menozzi, 28, hugged Watson and shook his hand outside the courtroom.
"There was doubt in my mind," he said of the case against Watson. "There was doubt in everybody's mind."
Menozzi vowed to pursue justice in his daughter's death.
"My child was severely beaten (prior to her death), and that never really came out," he said.
Prosecutors said the case is over for now.
"If, in fact, a responsible law enforcement officer or anyone else brings us admissible, concrete evidence that shows a crime was committed, we will investigate," Assistant State Attorney Lee Atkinson said.