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Hillsborough woman escapes life sentence in 2010 death of toddler, is convicted of lesser offenses

TAMPA — When Kara O'Connell's trial started last week, she faced a life sentence for the brutal physical abuse the state said she inflicted on a 3-year-old boy weeks before his death in 2010.

One of the state's key witnesses against her was ex-boyfriend Justin Garwacki — the boy's father — who was also charged in his son's death. He testified against his ex-girlfriend in exchange for leniency.

The father may not have been as persuasive as prosecutors had hoped.

A jury on Thursday convicted O'Connell, 26, of lesser charges in the death of 3-year-old John Taylor Baxley, sparing her from spending the rest of her life in prison.

They found her not guilty of first-degree murder, the most serious charge she faced, which carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole. Instead, the jury found O'Connell guilty of manslaughter, aggravated manslaughter of a child and child abuse.

Her defense attorney, Anthony Rickman, said the father's time on the stand likely led the jury away from a first-degree murder conviction.

"My client did not cause the death of this child," Rickman said. "But it's a tragic situation and there's no winners here."

Jury deliberations started Wednesday and lasted for nine hours over two days. O'Connell faces up to 35 years in prison at her sentencing, which is set for March 18.

Garwacki, 31, was charged with second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison. But in exchange for his testimony, prosecutors will recommend that he serve 30 years in prison. Garwacki's sentencing is set to take place Tuesday.

Rickman said he spent 2½ hours cross-examining Garwacki last week. During that testimony, the attorney said, the father admitted he'd struck his son the day he was found dead. Garwacki also testified that he didn't see O'Connell touch the 3-year-old on that day, the attorney said.

However, the jury also heard Garwacki explain how he and O'Connell both slapped, whacked, punched and bit the 3-year-old in the weeks before his death, Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters said.

Garwacki testified that he once witnessed O'Connell pick the toddler up by the throat and hold him to a ceiling fan after he messed up reciting the alphabet.

The father acknowledged his part in the numerous bruises that covered his son's body. But when asked if he thought he killed his own son, Garwacki said no.

During his testimony, however, he admitted this to the court: "I wasn't a good father."

Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox said his office was satisfied with the jury's decision.

"This was a horrific case and we are pleased and respect the jury's verdict," he said.

Prosecutors said the child was punished for offenses such as wetting the bed or not eating his meals. After returning home from a drug buy on Aug. 10, 2010, Garwacki found his son had stopped breathing and called 911. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies found the child with a split lip, a broken arm and an open wound on his forehead.

Last week, Peters told the jury that the boy died because his immune system was crippled, a condition some researchers have linked to physical abuse.

"What it basically means is he stopped fighting," the prosecutor said. "His body could not fight off the injuries and he finally died, he gave up."

The boy was abused over a six-week period, prosecutors said, while he stayed with his father during a summer trip to Tampa.

The couple never took him to a doctor.

Contact Sara DiNatale at or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.