Prosecutors have charged a Wichita man whose 10-month-old foster daughter died after she was left in a hot car outside her home with one count of first-degree felony murder.
Seth Michael Jackson, 29, appeared calm as he listened to Sedgwick County District Judge Joe Kisner advise him of the charge during his first appearance in court Wednesday afternoon. The count alleges the girl’s death occurred within the commission of an inherently dangerous felony, according to the criminal complaint filed against him. The underlying crime alleged is aggravated endangerment of a child. The endangerment allegation means recklessly causing or permitting a child to be in a situation where his or her life is in danger, District Attorney Marc Bennett said.
Bennett’s office also filed an alternative charge of second-degree reckless murder. That count alleges Jackson unintentionally killed the girl “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”
Bennett said there is an important distinction in that neither version of the charges alleges premeditated or intentional conduct.
Kisner set Jackson’s bond at $250,000. It was initially set at $100,000. He remains in the Sedgwick County Jail and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Aug. 13.
One of Jackson’s attorneys, John Stang, said Wednesday evening, “We think the bond is too high.” Stang said Jackson is a longtime member of the community, and “he has absolutely no criminal history that I know of.”
Stang also questioned the severity of the charge, saying, “First-degree murder seems to be excessive. That being said, Mr. Bennett’s office, I’m sure, did what they thought was appropriate. I respectfully disagree in this situation.” He added, “I believe that there was no intent by Mr. Jackson to leave that child in that car.” Stang said his understanding is that Jackson forgot the child was in the car because he became distracted at least partly by tending to a 5-year-old child in his care.
When the judge asked Jackson whether he understood the charge, he said yes. His only question regarded the judge’s order to avoid contacting any of the state’s witnesses listed in the charging document. He wore glasses and an orange jail jumpsuit during the hearing.
“I can’t talk to anybody on this list, including my husband and my mother?” Jackson asked, gesturing toward himself.
“That is correct,” Kisner replied.
Jackson continued: “I did not know this, and I have –”
“At this point,” the judge broke in, “you are to have no contact with them by further order of the court.” Kisner also ordered Jackson to have no contact with children.
Wichita police Lt. Todd Ojile said last week that Jackson left the girl strapped into the back seat of the car after returning home from a baby sitter late in the afternoon. Jackson and the child’s other foster parent – Jackson’s 26-year-old partner – rushed outside and found her dead after they realized up to 2 1/2 hours later that she had been forgotten, Ojile said. Jackson had seen something on TV that prompted him to remember, Ojile said.
The temperature in Wichita was about 90 degrees that day. Ojile said the tinted windows on the gray Dodge Charger were rolled up. The baby was one of six children, ranging in age from 10 months to 18 years, living in the home in the 1500 block of South Topeka with Jackson and his partner. The men had already adopted two of the children and were in the process of adopting the girl when she died.
Ojile said last week that another child was in the car with Jackson and the baby but that the baby remained in the car after they arrived at their home. Jackson’s partner was in the backyard and thought all of the children were playing downstairs in the home.
The baby’s maternal grandmother, Cindy Poe, told The Eagle last week that her granddaughter was born with drugs in her system and stayed in the pediatric intensive care unit before moving into her foster parents’ home. The girl’s two older sisters lived in the same home, and they were well cared for, Poe said.
The girl was placed with Jackson and the other foster parent by TFI, a contractor that has worked with the Kansas Department for Children and Families. DCF secretary Phyllis Gilmore announced last week that the agency has launched its own investigation into the death and would conduct inspections at all foster homes associated with TFI.
In an e-mailed response to Wednesday’s charges, Gilmore said the agency supports the criminal case against Jackson.
“We remain deeply saddened that this child suffered such a horrific death,” she said. “We support the charges filed in this case, and we will aid in any way possible the prosecution of the defendant.”
The death remains under investigation by the DCF, according to Gilmore’s statement.
Jackson faces life in prison if convicted of the first-degree murder charge.