By KATIEURBASZEWSKI / HOUMACOURIER
The Terrebonne Parish jury deliberated less than an hour before finding William Henderson, 25, guilty of second-degree murder and cruelty to a juvenile in the 2009 death of Kaleb Nelton.
'I'm just so happy right now,' the child's mother, Kimberly Nelton, who was in a relationship and living with Henderson three years ago, said after the trial. 'Kaleb can rest in peace.'
The verdict came after hours of closing arguments that included graphic descriptions of how Henderson beat and smothered the young boy.
Henderson's family and attorney declined to comment after the verdict was read. His attorney, Kathryn Sheely, said it was too early to say if they planned to appeal.
Some of Henderson's family members wept after the verdict was read and quietly left the courtroom.
In contrast, Nelton's family cheered and embraced outside the courtroom.
'We got justice for Kaleb and Kaden. ... I can go to sleep knowing that after almost three years of nightmares,' said Kimberly's father, David Nelton, who had clutched Kimberly's hand while the verdict was read. Kaden Hardwick is Kimberly Nelton's surviving son.
'God was definitely on our side,' said Amber Hardwick, the boys' aunt.
'I'm just happy justice is served,' said Derrick Hardwick Jr., the boys' father. He said it took all of his self-control not to jump for joy over the wooden benches where he and other family members were seated.
In his closing argument, Assistant District Attorney Matt Hagen outlined what Terrebonne Parish investigators believe Henderson did to kill Kaleb Nelton in October 2009.
Awoken by Kaleb's nighttime cries, Henderson, who had spent the previous hours drinking, smoking marijuana and taking the drug Lortab with friends, approached Kaleb angrily, Hagen said. He picked him up, squeezed his arms and yelled at him to shut up.
'At this point, the arms are broken. ... This child is now in peril,' Hagen said.
Henderson placed his hand over Kaleb's mouth and suffocated him. He then placed a blanket over him either in a moment of respect for the dead or as a potential excuse for Kaleb's death in the morning, Hagen speculated and went back to bed.
To back up this series of events, Hagen used mainly autopsy evidence.
Forensic pathologist Susan Garcia had ruled Kaleb's death a homicide, she testified during the trial, which started Wednesday. Kaleb had bruises in the shape of finger marks on his face. The skin connecting the inside of his mouth to his upper lip was torn, a 'classic indicator' of suffocation because it's often torn when people move their heads back and forth when they're being smothered.
It was painful to realize 'how much he suffered before he died,' Derrick Hardwick Jr.'s mother, Vickie Dubea, said after the verdict.
Assistant District Attorney Juan Pickett placed a photo of Kaleb Nelton, alive and wide-eyed, up on a projector screen while he spoke.
'That's my little buddy, who's going to be with me right now. ... This is Kaleb's day in court. This is his only day in court,' Pickett said.
Though Sheely called several pieces of evidence into question, much of her argument in Henderson's defense was the same one he gave police the day they questioned him: He was the person who alerted Kimberly Nelton that her baby wasn't breathing, so if he had known sooner that something was wrong, he would have alerted her sooner.
'We don't have to take his word for it' that Henderson would have called 911, Sheely said. 'That's what he did the next morning. ... When he did figure out that Kaleb was hurt, he called 911.'
But, Sheely said, deputies 'already made their choice' about Henderson's guilt when they questioned him.
Sheely also argued that the boy may have died after Henderson interacted with him. Henderson told police he did place his hand over the mouth's boy in the middle of the night, but the child was alive when Henderson went back to bed.
Sheely pointed out that Nelton first told police she checked on her children before she went to sleep and said they were fine. Henderson said his interaction happened before Nelton got home. Later, under questioning, Nelton told authorities that she hadn't checked on the children when she arrived home, and Pickett argued that this was what genuinely happened.
Henderson was originally charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors originally said they would seek the death penalty. That punishment was dropped when they later chose to charge him with second-degree murder.
During the trial, a first-responder testified that Henderson said to him that this was the second child he had lost in a relationship. After the verdict, Pickett and Hagen said Henderson told police that this referred to a miscarriage.
Jurors also convicted Henderson of the other charges against him: two counts of cruelty to a juvenile. Prosecutors argued that Henderson abused both of Kimberly Nelton's children, Kaleb and 2-year-old Kaden.
Kimberly Nelton has not seen her surviving son since she was arrested. She was also charged with cruelty to a juvenile because she left her two boys alone at home when she and Henderson went out to drink with friends. If convicted, a judge could sentence her to up to 40 years in prison.
She missed Kaleb's funeral because she was in jail after being arrested, she and her family said. Now that Henderson has been convicted, three years later, her charges can be addressed as well.
If she goes free or gets a short sentence, 'we're going to try to slowly reunite' Kimberly Nelton said of her son.
Derrick Hardwick Jr. has had sole custody of the boy for three years, though the boy now lives with Derrick Hardwick Jr.'s grandmother until he'll soon save up enough money to support him, he said. The young father is in a new relationship with another woman.
He lives in Walker, which isn't far from where Kimberly Nelton now lives, in Prairieville, they both pointed out.
'I'm not even thinking about me right now,' Nelton said. 'I'm just glad the verdict is on our side.'