SEBRING — Jurors in the case of a mother accused of neglecting her four children may have been surprised Wednesday when during opening statements both the prosecution and the defense agreed that evidence supported convicting the woman on neglect charges.
The only difference was that the defense said the mother, Sandra Jackson, is not guilty in the death of her youngest child, 9-month-old Milo Rupert. Instead, defense attorney Robert Gray said that Jackson’s boyfriend, Kyle Rupert, killed Milo.
The trial of Jackson began Wednesday in Highlands County Circuit Court after jury selection began Monday and ended on Tuesday. Jackson and Kyle Rupert were charged with three counts of child neglect without great harm, one count of child neglect with great harm and aggravated manslaughter of a child. Subsequently Rupert plead guilty and was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
An autopsy showed that Milo died in July 2012 of malnutrition, authorities said, although the defense is expected to contest that. Authorities also said that his three sisters suffered from malnutrition, as well.
Several witnesses testified that Milo’s three sisters looked very skinny when authorities went to the residence the night Milo died.
Nathan Coogan, a detective with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, said the children were malnourished to the point where others could see their rib cages.
Jurors watched a video interrogation conducted by Robert Neale, a detective with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, in which Sandra Jackson was questioned about the children possibly suffering from malnutrition.
In one part of that, Jackson talked about her three daughters, who were 2, 3 and 4 years old at the time.
“They all had pot bellies,” she said.
Neale responded by asking, “Have you ever seen famine victims in Africa?, noting that the famine victims have distended bellies.
Jackson also was asked about why when Milo was 4 months old, he weighed 15 pounds, but at 10 months old, he only weighed 11 pounds.
“I didn’t know that,” Jackson replied, but added that in between those times Milo was weighed, he was weighed another time and it was higher. She said she fed the children daily and that while she was at work Kyle Rupert was responsible for feeding the children.
Another part of the testimony involved the condition of the Avon Park apartment where the family lived. Several witnesses noted that the apartment was dirty and infested with roaches.
In his opening argument, Assistant State Attorney Richard Castillo said that when law enforcement officers went into the apartment, roaches fell or crawled on them.
“They had to dust roaches off their scalps,” Castillo said.
Testimony also was that the children had red marks all over their bodies and the prosecution contends that’s from roach bites.
Jackson said in the interview she thought fleas from her cats were biting the children and that the red marks would come and go.
She said she wanted to get rid of the cats, but wouldn’t call Animal Control because she feared the cats would be put to sleep. She said she thought that was animal abuse.
Castillo said the evidence would show that Jackson is responsible for Milo’s death and the neglect of Milo’s sisters.
But while there’s evidence that Jackson neglected her children, Gray said that he believes Kyle Rupert is responsible for Milo’s death. There’s evidence that Milo may have died from being smothered, he said.
Gray said Milo had an injury at the time of his death that would have been consistent with someone smothering him.
Jurors also heard a 911 tape in which Timothy Richersamer, who lived with Jackson and Rupert, called after he and Kyle Rupert discovered Milo on the night of July 7, 2012.
“We have no clue,” he said, about what happened to Milo. “He was asleep. We went into check on him and he wasn’t breathing.”
He said Kyle Rupert was quite upset. And that prosecution said that’s at odds with the idea that Rupert had killed Milo.
When asked if he needed instructions on how to give CPR to Milo, Richersamer said to the dispatcher: “I’m sorry. It is too late. He is gone.”