Jesse Lee Sturdivant was found not guilty by a jury on the charge of injury to a child on Wednesday afternoon, June 29, 2011 in the 32nd Judicial District Court. The two-day trial was presided over by Judge Glen Harrison.
The trial, which started on Tuesday afternoon, June 28, stemmed from a visit made by Child Protective Services (CPS) nearly two years ago on June 25, 2009, to the home of Sturdivant's girlfriend, Jennifer Bates, on 815 Circle Drive. Sturdivant lived with Bates and her children for approximately three months.
CPS investigator Cindy Tribble — who made the visit to Bates' house with Sweetwater Police Department (SPD) Officer Ray Cornutt — first took the stand. Tribble testified that she was instructed to visit the family following reports on the CPS hotline of bruises on the head of the youngest of Bates' three children, a seven-and-a-half month old girl.
Tribble stated that she and Cornutt arrived to the house and were greeted by Bates who was holding the child in question. When asked about the child's condition by Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Trey Keith, Tribble responded, "She was bruised, battered."
Keith then entered evidence photos of the child which were taken by Tribble, which showed the bruises on the child's face, asking if the photos "depict what they were supposed to". Tribble stated that the photos did show the bruises, but not the "terrible" congestion of the child.
As they were the only ones with access to the child, Tribble revealed that the investigation was narrowed down to Sturdivant and Bates, yet noted they were both cooperative in offering information, along with neighbors and others who knew the family. Tribble also stated that Sturdivant talked willingly with her that same night at the CPS office and on another occasion along with Cornutt.
Defense Attorney Devin Coffey then questioned Tribble, asking about an instance where the child reached out to the officer and if she deemed it to be strange. Tribble responded yes, with Coffey noting that Cornutt and Sturdivant are similar in stature.
Coffey continued, asking Tribble of the account Sturdivant gave of the child and how she was bruised. Sturdivant had shared with her that the injuries came when he pulled a pair of pants from under the child's bassinet, in which the child was sleeping in. The bassinet then flipped over, causing the child to fall out and cry. Later a red mark was discovered on her head.
Coffey then brought up the chest congestion of the child, which Tribble shared was from two pennies being lodged in the child's esophagus, which were removed. Also brought into question was the condition of Bates's apartment, which was called a "filthy mess" with dirty clothes. At this time, Bates had no open CPS cases.
However, ADA Keith mentioned that Bates has had many other CPS cases. Other photographic evidence was brought in of the bassinet in the bedroom and the disarray of the room. Tribble acknowledged confronting Bates on the mess, realizing there was a problem as the other two children were not home. Later at the hospital, the two children were seen; the daughter was physically fine, while the son had a "tremendous diaper rash".
Second on the stand was Dr. Janine James, a physician practitioner with Dr. J Express Care in Abilene and was on the ER staff at Rolling Plains Memorial Hospital on the day in question. Dr. James said she saw the child, who was brought by Bates along with the CPS workers, and performed a head-to-toe examination, x-ray and physical assessment on the child and took photos.
Dr. James recognized the bruises on the face, neck and head of the child, yet her evaluation was that the bruises were the patterns of fingers and consistent to a handprint. However, Dr. James noted that some of the bruises were different ages from an earlier time and different colors. There were no fractures or broken bones and as she found the pennies in the esophagus, the child was transferred to Lubbock to remove the two coins.
Cornutt then took the stand, with 13 years experience with the SPD and Nolan County Sheriff's Office. He stated that he immediately saw the bruising in the photos, went to the house and then to the hospital. He saw Sturdivant at the hospital in which they talked later at the CPS office. Sturdivant said that Bates was not at fault, sharing his account with Cornutt.
Evidence of a video interview of Sturdivant at SPD headquarters on June 29, 2009 was entered. Cornutt stated that Sturdivant was not in custody but showed up after Cornutt requested. At that time, Sturdivant was informed that he was a suspect with Bates; Tribble was also in the video.
Cornutt admitted that it was unusual for the child to reach for him because he had never seen her. However, CPS cases were brought up regarding Bates' daughter Donna and the death of another daughter Emily.
The jury watched the 35-minute video during Tuesday's hearing, as Sturdivant shared his story. He noted that if "unless they are crying", that he never interacted with the children. He admitted to being scared of babies but called himself responsible.
Sturdivant denied seeing the bruises on that morning, but as Cornutt pointed out the five-fingered bruise and says the doctor believes the child has been hit multiple times with a fist, Sturdivant said, "I just don't see it."
Also in the video, Sturdivant revealed that he had spanked daughter Donna before — as Bates has also done — and reiterated the story of a messy apartment.
Officer Cornutt was recalled to the stand on Wednesday morning, recapping the video interview. He also was presented the evidence photos of the bedroom to examine and offered his opinion on the explanation given to him by Sturdivant to the jurors, deeming it not plausible based on the placement of the bassinet.
Cornutt also deciphered the photo of the multiple bruising on the child for the jury, who also looked at the picture. He also noted that while Bates asked about the condition of the child, Sturdivant did not. But when asked by the defense, Cornutt acknowledged that Sturdivant admitted to never hitting the child.
The next person to take the stand was Donna Bates, the six year old daughter of Jennifer Bates. An objection of competency was made by the defense, in which the jury was exited in order for Judge Harrison to make his decision. After delicately asking her a series of simple questions, the judge overruled the objection.
ADA Keith asked Donna if she knew who Sturdivant was, saying yes and that he lived in the same house with her. She called him Dad and identified her little sister in evidence photos, but didn't know how she got the marks (bruises) on her face. Coffey did not question the little girl.
Donna's mother, Jennifer Bates, was then called to the stand, recalling that she and Sturdivant dated for almost a year and lived together for some time. The trial, however, prompted Sturdivant to move out.
Keith showed Bates the photo of her daughter, in which she recalled the first time she saw the bruises was the morning after, when she woke up as she prepared the kids for day care.
Bates took no initial action upon finding the bruises because she already had an open CPS case, not wanting to involve them again. The case, at that time, dealt with Bates leaving her children with someone who should not be with children. She had no knowledge the first instance, but left the children with the person deliberately the second time.
Bates has been aware of CPS since childhood. She was raised by both parents until her mother passed away when Bates was six, the middle child of seven children. Various reasonings prompted CPS involvement in her family; some siblings were removed by the organization, yet Bates was not.
The state continued to go down the list of Bates' CPS connection, starting in 2006 when her daughter Emily died from RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). Her kids were removed from the house but later returned. The following year, an unexplained injury on her son's head brought CPS back, believed to be some kind of burn, possibly from a cigarette.
In 2008 was when Bates left her children with someone who wasn't supposed to be with children, James Fleming — the father of three of her four children. The next year, 2009, was when CPS became involved in the case with Sturdivant, in which the children were put in foster care.
Bates was asked if she was aware of a "safety plan" implemented by CPS in this instance, answering no. The children, once again, were later returned to Bates.
Also brought into questioning was Bates' job and parenting skills. A dancer at Cloud Nine in Abilene, she admitted that while it does come with scrutiny, the job does provide her financial security.
In her opinion, she said she is a good mother, though does not consider herself a good homekeeper or someone who exercises good judgment. However, Bates said she does provide her kids a place to live, food on the table, the things they need and even want, and gives them love, saying she has improved as a mother.
Bates shared her description on the day in question, that she left between 4 and 4:30 p.m. to work and that her daughter had no injuries before that time. She left the child with Sturdivant, a usual occurrence, as she found him capable of watching the children.
Sturdivant had already left, so she was unable to inquire of him when she discovered the bruises. She still left her children with him the next night and because she didn't want to accuse him, she was unsure if he was responsible.
The defense also asked Bates about her job, as she has been employed with Cloud Nine for two years. Her schedule lasts from leaving town in the afternoon until arriving home at 3 a.m., with her friend usually watching the children overnight where Bates picks them up in the morning.
And because of costs and the hours, Bates no longer has her children in daycare. But when asked why she took no medical attention with her son's extreme diaper rash, she replied that she didn't know why. She also noted that she met Sturdivant while they were both employed with Jack in the Box, but later she took a job for six months with Ludlums.
Bates was also questioned about the pennies in the esophagus, thinking the congestion would heal from medicine she was giving the child. However, the defense said, some testimony claimed that the rattling of coins could be heard. The defense even brought up daughter Emily's death from RSV as a reason to have the baby checked for the respiratory issues.
Also mentioned was the CPS case of Bates leaving her kids with Fleming, who was not supposed to watch children because of an accusation of molesting a four year old. While Bates said she grew up in an abusive home, she said that Sturdivant would only yell and leave to cool off when angry.
ADA Keith then showed the evidence photos of the bassinet and bedroom to Bates, in which both sides then rested their cases. Following a recess until 1 p.m., both sides offered their closing and final arguments before having the jury deliberate.
Keith noted that while it turned out to be a "circumstantial case", witnesses and sufficient evidence were presented by the state and asked the jury to consider what they did know: that someone caused injury to the child, that the child was under 14 years old, and that it happened in Nolan County.
While Bates was not a "good mom", she made no attempt to hide her story and the steps she took following the incident. Sturdivant was the only one who did admit to the incident, but called it an accident. Both were the only people with exclusive access to the child.
Keith also insisted that the jury watch the video evidence multiple times in order to hear Sturdivant's story and watch his thought process and deliberation.
Defense lawyer Coffey said the that evidence "fell far short beyond a reasonable doubt". He stated how the child reached for Cornutt and how Donna Bates was fond of Sturdivant, never mentioning being hit or any trauma.
The state's argument was if they could prove that Sturdivant did it, which the defense believes they cannot. Bates' lifestyle was brought up again, noting that she "was proud" and not bothered by it, and that she didn't take action for the betterment of her children.
Coffey claimed that Sturdivant took the blame because he caused the injury and was concerned, but could only imagine the frustration of a young mother and that Bates come from an abusive background with lifelong CPS involvement. The jury, he said, had no other option than to find Sturdivant 'not guilty'.
ADA Keith presented a final argument, discrediting the arguments of the state given by the defense. At that time, the jury went to deliberate. Starting shortly before 2 p.m., the 12 members took around two hours before coming to the unanimous verdict of not guilty.