A Ramsey County jury Thursday night found Demetrius Willis not guilty of murder in connection with the death of his girlfriend's 2-year-old son, but found him guilty of second-degree manslaughter while committing child neglect.
Willis, 23, was acquitted of four counts of unintentional second-degree murder and two counts of first-degree manslaughter. After deliberating about eight hours, the jury determined that Willis failed to get help for Julian James-Robert Williams after the toddler had suffered severe internal injuries. After the verdict was read, Willis put his head on the table.
"Mr. Willis is really disappointed," said Nicole Kubista, one of his attorneys. "He maintains he never knew Julian was as sick as he was."
Kubista said that in finding Willis not guilty on the other counts, "it seems like the jury realizes Jessica was the main actor."
Jessica Caldwell, Julian's mother, is facing the same charges and is to go on trial Oct. 10. Prosecutor David Miller said the state is looking forward to Caldwell's trial.
The jury heard details and saw pictures of Julian's injuries -- a transected vein and pancreas, large amounts of internal bleeding and bruises over his body -- during the weeklong trial that began Sept. 22. The case presented by prosecutors offered scarce evidence about how Julian's injuries occurred and focused mainly on the timing of his symptoms early on Sept. 10, 2009. Julian vomited, complained of thirst and was whiny through the night, according to testimony.
During closing arguments Thursday morning, prosecutor Karen Kugler homed in on the testimony of Julian's day-care provider and family members who said they didn't notice anything wrong with him the day before his death. She also reminded the jury of bus video footage that showed Julian playing and laughing on his way to Willis' house at 833 York Av. in St. Paul shortly before 9 p.m.
Dr. Brad Feltis, a pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital, testified that he believed Julian's injuries occurred six to eight hours before he was found not breathing and without a pulse about 5 a.m. the next day. Feltis also testified that Julian probably could have survived if he had received medical help earlier.
"Two people are responsible for his death," Kugler said. "These are the only two people who were with Julian when the injuries had to have occurred."
Kugler questioned the testimony of Nicole McDaniel, a former jailmate of Caldwell, who came forward in the middle of the trial and said Caldwell told her she hit her son in the chest two days before his death and pushed him into the bathroom at Willis' house, causing him to hit the toilet.
"Even if you want to believe that's true, that doesn't mean Jessica Caldwell caused Julian's death when she hit him in the chest two days earlier," Kugler said.
Defense attorney Lisa Hallberg told the jury that the state didn't prove Willis had anything to do with Julian's death. She said that Willis didn't know Julian was dying and that when he realized how grave the child's injuries were, he tried to get help. Willis told police that he tried to give Julian CPR even though he didn't know how to perform it.
After two separate rulings by District Judge Gary Bastian, the jury didn't hear about Willis' criminal history, which includes two felony convictions for domestic assault and two convictions for violations of domestic abuse no-contact orders. Those incidents involved Willis' ex-girlfriend and her mother.
Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 23. Under state sentencing guidelines, Willis could face eight years in prison.
Lora Pabst • 612-916-7212 Twitter: @lorapabst