Courtney Seleste Casanas

Courtney Seleste Casanas

BELTON — A Bell County jury found a Killeen day-care provider guilty of criminal negligent homicide on Wednesday, after a half-day of testimony and closing arguments.

Courtney Seleste Casansas was found guilty in the death of Jaxson Partridge, 1, whom she left sleeping in his car seat in a room with other children. Jaxson strangled on the strap of the car seat.

Casanas was found guilty of criminal negligent homicide and made a deadly weapon finding, said Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza, on Wednesday. “The jury will resume tomorrow morning and the punishment portion of the trial will continue.”

The jury of seven women and five men retired for deliberations around noon and deliberated for more than four hours after hearing more emotional testimony on the second day of the trial of a Killeen home day-care provider accused last year of criminal negligent homicide.

The trial started with jury selection Monday in the 264th Judicial District Court of Judge Paul LePak.

In numerous interviews with police, Casanas admitted to leaving Jaxson sleeping in his car seat for at least 30 minutes, along with several other children in the room, on May 12, 2017. She closed the door to the bedroom and started household chores.

The jury had to decide if Casanas was guilty of criminal negligent homicide by “failing to keep a proper lookout” on the child. If the jurors decided Casanas was guilty, they also had to decide if she used a deadly weapon: the car seat.

LePak explained to the jury while he read the court’s charge that a deadly weapon can be something that is “capable” of causing substantial bodily harm or death.

Criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in jail, according to the Texas Penal Code.

A mom’s emotional testimony

The courtroom was full of family, friends and observers. Jaxson’s mother, Miranda Partridge, had not been in the courtroom on Tuesday because she was a witness in the case.

She also was the final witness to take the stand, with a gold-framed photo of her son, smiling hugely, on the overhead projector for the court to see.

Miranda Partridge said her baby was premature, but otherwise healthy. “He was a happy, easy baby,” she said.

Assistant District Attorney Debbie Garrett asked Partridge how she found Casanas as a child-care provider.

Partridge said she found an ad on Craigslist from a woman who said she was a stay-at-home mom and CPR certified.

“She never said she was licensed, but I assumed she was,” Partridge said.

The mother wanted to ease her child into day care, visiting the Casanas home several times and observing her son’s reactions to other children.

She said she thought children in day-care centers do not get enough individual time with caregivers.

On a typical day, Casanas was watching three or four children, but it could be as many as 10, Partridge said.

State’s exhibit 30

The red and beige car seat again took center stage during the testimony of Partridge, who burst into tears when she saw it.

She said her son hated the car seat, contradicting what Casanas said in one of her interviews with KPD.

“He was a bundle of energy and wasn’t going to have it, being tied down,” Partridge said. “I would have to persuade him with food.”

Garrett asked how Partridge got the car seat.

“It was new in the box when it was given to me,” she said. She had purchased her son’s next car seat, a front-facing model, but he was not yet 35 pounds, the weight range for the seat.

On the morning of May 12, “Jaxson was bubbly, ready to get up and go for the day,” his mom recalled.

But at 1:07 p.m. she got the call.

“I didn’t understand what was happening. It was just words when Courtney called me,” Partridge said. “She said there’s been an accident. She said, ‘blue, car seat, you have to get to Metroplex.’ I just hung up.”

When she finally got to her son’s room, it was still full of doctors and nurses. “I just sat in the corner. They were trying to save his life.”

But when she finally saw her son, he looked “lifeless,” she said.

“I saw the bright red mark all the way around his neck and I asked the doctor if she had choked him,” Partridge said.

The family spent the next almost two months at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center in Temple. Even after the child was taken off life support, he continued to fight for another 39 days.

“I had to sit for 56 days and watch my son…” Partridge said, her voice trailing off. Her son died July 8, 2017.

Closing arguments

The state in closing arguments argued Casanas demonstrated her guilt by lying about whether Partridge was buckled. At first, she told officers he was not buckled at all, but in the third interview with KPD Detective Dan Hertzog she said she buckled the chest buckle of the car seat, but not the buckle between the legs.

“She turned the car seat into a deadly weapon” by not buckling the seat properly, Garrett said. “She used the car seat improperly, not while in a car going somewhere, but as a babysitter.”

“No matter how hard the defense tries to blame others, his defendant said it all,” Garrett said. She replayed parts of the first KPD interview, in which Casanas said, “As a mom, I should have known better than that.”

Defense attorney Michael J. Magana of Temple tried to raise doubt in jurors’ minds about the car seat. He had proven the seat was “expired” based on a sticker on the seat, that several recalls were in effect, and that Partridge was about an inch too long and a pound too heavy for the seat.

“Even Detective Hertzog couldn’t rule out the car seat being a contributing factor,” Magana said. “The seat was defective, which leaves room for reasonable doubt.”

Magana appealed to jurors’ emotions.

“It’s easy to scream, holler, point at somebody when there’s a death involved, but are we seeking justice?” Magana asked the jury in his closing argument. “It was an accident. Period.”

Assistant District Attorney Frederick Burns said the case boiled down to accountability and responsibility. “It was her choice, her convenience, and she knew from the start it was a bad choice. The car seat is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

emilys@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7552

Emily Hilley-Sierzchula is reporter for the Killeen Daily Herald. Reach her at emilys@kdhnews.com

Herald reporter

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