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Supreme court upholds Jaco conviction

JEFFERSON CITY — The conviction and resulting 20-year prison sentence for Christy Lynn Jaco of Park Hills was upheld Tuesday by the Missouri Supreme Court. The state high court’s ruling was also significant in that it upheld the concept of a second phase of a trial in which juries determine the penalty for a convicted defendant.

Jaco, 23, was found guilty of first-degree child abuse in connection with the death of her infant child in November of 2001. The baby, 13-month-old Zachary Brooks, died at Cardinal Glennon Hospital in St. Louis of what doctors described as the “shaken baby syndrome.”

In its unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court found that Circuit Court Judge Kenneth W. Pratte had not erred in several rulings he made while presiding over the 2003 trial. The trial had been moved to Ste. Genevieve County on a change of venue from St. Francois County at the request of Jaco’s attorneys.

“Obviously, I am very pleased with the ruling handed down Tuesday by the Supreme Court,” said Prosecuting Attorney Wendy Wexler Horn of St. Francois County. “It is one of the first cases taken up on appeal in regard to the bifurcated trial and I am glad there has been a decision.”

Horn also said she is pleased about the ruling because of the kind of case that was involved. “It was a case in which I was emotionally involved because it involved the death of a baby. Those always touch you deeply.”

Sharing the prosecutor’s satisfaction with the high court ruling were Lieutenants Doug Bowles and Mark Rigel of the Park Hills Police Department. They had conducted the investigation that led to the charges against Jaco.

“We had some concerns over the bifurcated trial issue,” Bowles said, “but we also felt we had a strong case for the conviction of Miss Jaco. We are very pleased with the ruling from the Supreme Court because our department put a lot of time and effort into this case.”

The attorneys for Jaco, Terry J. Flanagan and John W. Peel, appealed the conviction and resulting sentence directly to the Missouri Supreme Court because it was the first case in which a bifurcated trial was conducted under a new state law. Among the points raised by the defendant’s attorneys was that the new law as well as some of its procedures were unconstitutional.

Flanagan and an assistant Missouri attorney general gave oral arguments on the case before the Supreme Court early last month. Most of Flanagan’s allocated time was spent on his contention that Judge Pratte erred by not allowing the defense to present photographs of the Park Hills apartment taken months after the baby’s death occurred.

It was Flanagan’s argument that the photographs offered by the defense would have raised sufficient reasonable doubt concerning the testimony of the prosecution’s main witness, Matthew Eckhoff. Flanagan told the high court the defense photos would have shown the jury that Eckhoff could not have seen Jaco shake the baby from the location at which he testified he was standing.

The attorney for the state countered that the judge’s ruling was appropriate in that the Park Hills apartment had changed tenants between the time of the child’s death and when the defense photos were taken. This raised the distinct possibility that the layout of the furniture in the apartment was not the same.

The circumstances laid out by the state “support the trial court’s determination that the photograph is not an accurate and fair depiction of the line of sight between the kitchen and the living room,” wrote Supreme Court Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. in the opinion handed down by the high court.

The high court also found Judge Pratte was not in error when he refused to allow the defense to present expert testimony suggesting that a male unrelated to the infant is more apt than the mother to abuse a child. The ruling by the court notes it would have been a statistical suggestion not necessarily based on any facts presented in the case.

In his oral presentation to the high court, one of the points raised by Flanagan was that the penalty phase of the trial allows the prosecution virtual unlimited opportunity to commit character assassination with all sorts of testimony for which no factual basis is established. The court pointed out in its opinion there is already case law supporting this approach to the assessment of punishment.

While this case was the first to go to trial under a new law, it was not the first bifurcated trial in the state. The new law requires a penalty phase when a defendant without a previous felony conviction is found guilty. Prior to the new law, bifurcated trials were conducted only in cases where a jury had to decide between life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Another argument raised by Jaco’s attorneys and rejected by the high court was that the jury should have been required to find aggravating circumstances for imposing any sentence beyond the minimum allowed for the crime. The allowed range of punishment for first-degree child abuse is 10 to 30 years in prison. The opinion pointed out that neither state law nor court rules require that either a jury or a judge find any aggravating circumstances in order to impose a sentence anywhere within this range.

While there was a bifurcated trial conducted in the Jaco case, the jury was unable to reach agreement on a sentence. As a result, Judge Pratte ordered a presentence investigation and imposed the 20-year sentence on his own.

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