BELTON — The first evidence presented in a felony child death case on Tuesday morning stirred powerful emotions of the audience in the courtroom of 264th Judicial District Court of Judge Paul LePak.
The 911 call made by Courtney Seleste Casanas, who was charged last year with criminal negligent homicide, lasted several minutes. In the courtroom, she had her head bowed and was crying as she re-lived the desperate, frantic attempts to save the life of Jaxson Partridge, 1, on May 12, 2017, in Killeen.
Josh King, emergency dispatcher, guided Casanas through CPR, and she is heard saying, “Please hurry. He’s not breathing.”
Killeen Police Department officers arrived at the house within 3 minutes, EMS personnel not far behind, according to officers’ testimonies on Tuesday.
Partridge was rushed to the hospital but later died on July 8, 2017.
Casanas admitted to police that she had left Partridge in his car seat, with two other sleeping children in the room, to clean and cook a meal.
The state called a host of Killeen Police Department witnesses and a Dallas County medical examiner, while attorney Michael J. Magana of Temple, defending Casanas, raised doubts about whether the car seat itself was a contributor to the death of Partridge.
Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza said approximately 80 people were considered on Monday before the court settled on the 12 jurors. Women edged out men 7 to 5 in the makeup of the jury.
Casanas pleaded not guilty after the state last year charged her “with criminal negligence...by failing to keep a proper lookout and make sure he was safe.”
The state called the car seat a “deadly weapon” in the indictment, a phrase Magana would return to several times later while cross-examining the state’s witnesses.
“Seventeen months and 12 days: That’s how old Jaxson Partridge was when this overwhelming human tragedy begins,” said Assistant District Attorney Frederick Burns, in his opening statement. He said Partridge had been at the day care for about 6 months and his mother had located it through Craigslist.
Casanas was the only adult with the three children, including one of her own.
Burns outlined what happened to Partridge, based on interviews given by Casanas, which later were shown to the court.
Partridge was in his car seat and the other two children were unconfined, according to testimony. All of the children fell asleep but then Casanas returned to the room after hearing one of the children cry around 1 p.m.
“Jaxson was in his car seat, still, slumped down, with his head in the straps, blue,” Burns said. KPD officers performed CPR and paramedics were able to resuscitate him and he was stabilized at the hospital.
“The breath came back but it was a catastrophic injury he couldn’t survive,” he said. Burns said Partridge was in a vegetative state until “his mother had to make a decision no human should have to make: she took her son off life support. He kept fighting until July.”
Burns insisted it is a simple case.
“Casanas was paid to watch the child and she left while the child strangled,” he said. Killeen police said previously that the day care operation in the in Killeen was in-home and unlicensed.
She admitted during one of the interviews that she did not have a child care certification but the mother knew that.
The state admitted Casanas was cooperative and gave five recorded interviews and at least two written statements.
“All were the same, except for one detail,” Burns said. It was only in later interviews that she told police she buckled Partridge into the seat, but not completely.
The interviews were “non-custodial,” meaning detectives did not have to read Casanas her Miranda rights.
“He’s actually a really good baby,” Casanas said about Partridge on the day of the incident and before he died. “The kids had all been playing, then they followed me into the bedroom and I put on YouTube and put Jaxson in his car seat. He didn’t fight about being put in there.”
Casanas told police that she was “in shock” after finding the child. “I got him out of the seat ASAP and got him on the ground,” she said.
“An accident happened in my house. I truly love Jaxson and I would never hurt a child,” Casanas said, adding that she has six children of her own. “It didn’t feel good to have to call the mom...having to hear something like that is horrific. I want to talk to her but I don’t know what to say. I want him to be OK.”
It was during the third interview with KPD, which Casanas initiated, that Detective Dan Hertzog asked more details about the straps and how she buckled Partridge in.
In the recorded interview, she described fastening the strap across the chest, but not the buckle between the legs.
On May 12, 2017, three KPD officers were finishing up at an accident scene less than four miles away, according to the officers’ testimonies.
Officer Chris Barrera has been a patrol officer with KPD for 9 years, and he was third on the scene, pulling up right behind another unit.
They were responding to a “child found not breathing” call, a top priority. “We got there as fast as we could safely, with lights and sirens,” he said on the stand.
He told the court that he told everyone to leave the room except the officers, and the three men performed CPR until EMS arrived minutes later. Paramedics immediately picked the child up and rushed him to an ambulance.
“I didn’t consider it a crime scene at first, my focus was on the baby, and later on the investigation began,” Barrera said. “(Casanas) was not under arrest.”
Magana asked Barrera if he found a “deadly weapon” in the residence, referring back to the indictment. The officer said he had not.
The red and beige car seat, and its warning labels, were the topic of conversation during afternoon testimony, when Magana attempted to raise doubt about whether the car seat was expired, unsafe and if Partridge was too big for the seat.
“Strangulation hazard. Never leave child unattended,” Burns read in front of Hertzog, who was testifying about the interviews.
During cross-examination, Magana took the car seat and set it down in front of the detective and asked if he had read every label, and Hertzog admitted he had not.
On the bottom of the car seat was a label that said to not use the car seat after August, 2014. Additionally, numerous recalls were in effect on the car seat, Magana said.
During questioning, Hertzog said he could not say if the expired car seat played a role.
Magana also raised questions about the label that suggested Partridge might have been too big for the seat, weighing 23 pounds for the car seat rated for 4-23 pounds.
It was math that almost led to a mistrial.
The question of a conversion from grams to pounds, which was done by Burns on his phone using Google, led to a string of objections from Magana and then a call for a mistrial after Burns handed the phone to Hertzog.
“Your motion is denied,” LePak quickly said.
Testimony will continue on the case starting Wednesday morning.
Casanas was arrested in November 2017 and was released on Nov. 11, 2017, after posting a $100,000 bond, according to Bell County Chief Deputy Chuck Cox.