Dressed in suit jacket and bow tie, Seth M. Jackson sat next to his defense attorney, knowing that in addition to a future without foster parenting and teaching, he could face prison time for his 10-month-old foster daughter’s death.
He pleaded guilty Nov. 26 to involuntary manslaughter in the July 24 death of Kadillak Poe-Jones. Although he had no prior criminal history and was eligible for probation, there was a chance the judge would impose a sentence of nearly three years’ incarceration.
For five years, Jackson said during his sentencing hearing Friday morning, children needing care came in and out of his home. He had adopted three sons and ran a household with six children – five of them under age 6 – with his partner.
None of the children, he explained, were ever harmed.
“But on July 24 all of that changed,” he said. “My whole world changed in a blink of an eye. I caused the death of my baby girl,” whom he had planned to rename Anna when her adoption was finalized.
Her death, he said, is “the biggest tragedy of my life.”
“I can’t blame anybody else. I have to put it on me because that’s the only place that it belongs.”
But, he offered in a tearful plea for probation: “I am not a menace to society.”
Despite pleas for leniency, Sedgwick County District Court Judge David Dahl on Friday ordered Jackson, 29, to serve 32 months in prison for death of his foster daughter.
According to an autopsy report and police, the girl succumbed to hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature, on July 24 after she was left alone and strapped into the backseat of Jackson’s parked Dodge Charger for up to 2 ½ hours.
Authorities have said the men thought the girl was playing with other children inside the house at 1525 S. Topeka and didn’t realize she was still in the car until they heard an infant crying on TV. An investigation revealed Jackson had smoked marijuana throughout the day.
Prosecutors said Friday that Jackson had gone to buy more drugs before picking up his foster daughter from a babysitter, then had forgotten the infant and had gone inside his home, smoking more marijuana while Kadillak died in the car.
Friday’s ruling drew tears from dozens of people who packed the courtroom’s gallery. Except for reporters, all were there in Jackson’s support.
“They are grieved at the resolution,” the Rev. Dawn Frankfurt, pastor of St. James Episcopal Church, said on behalf of Jackson’s family after the hearing.
“Now in that grief, (they) are trying to regroup and figure out how to rally around Seth and his children during the time of his imprisonment.”
Cindy Poe, Kadillak’s biological grandmother, was not in court Friday morning and could not be reached for comment by phone. Assistant District Attorney Mark Chotimongkol gave the judge a letter on her behalf during Jackson’s hearing.
Kadillak is “not going to learn how to ride a bicycle for the first time. She is not going to have a first day of school. She’s not going to graduate high school. She’s not going to have that first kiss and meet someone and fall in love and get married and have a family,” Chotimongkol said.
“All of her futures and all of her possibilities are gone. Everything she was, everything she would ever be is gone because of the defendant.”
Jackson initially was charged with his foster daughter’s death under a law that allows a first-degree murder charge if the death occurs in the commission of a felony crime. The felony Jackson was accused of was aggravated endangering of a child. The count later was amended to unintentional but reckless second-degree murder.
His November plea deal with prosecutors further reduced the charge.
Under Kansas sentencing guidelines, Jackson faced 31 to 136 months’ incarceration, up to $300,000 in fines and two years of post-release supervision for the involuntary manslaughter conviction. But because he had no prior criminal history, the charge fell in a “border box” on the state’s sentencing grid, which means the law makes no recommendation between probation and imprisonment.
The decision is left up to the judge’s discretion.
Jackson’s lawyer, Leslie Hulnick, in court Friday said the 10-month-old’s death was unintentional.
“This is a mistake that could happen to anyone,” he said, arguing that a sentence of probation should be considered.
He also argued that prison would be inappropriate for Jackson because there he would receive “little to no rehab” for substance abuse and two diagnosed psychological disorders. Since he was freed on bond Aug. 2, Jackson has been undergoing mental health counseling and frequenting addiction support groups, Hulnick said.
Sending Jackson to prison “would take valuable prison space away from our community. I prefer that you leave that space open for a violent offender, one that has a high likelihood of recidivism,” Hulnick said.
“This man is not that character.”
Chotimongkol, the prosecutor, argued that the judge should order prison time because Kadillak’s death resulted from negligence by a person who had asked for and been entrusted with a child’s care.
“This is not a situation where you had an unwed mother who was ill prepared to raise a child and accidentally caused the child’s death” he said.
“Mr. Jackson came to the state and said, ‘Trust me. I will take care of children. I will care for them, and I will protect them.’ The state did so – we trusted him with this child. And what did that care and protection take the form of? It took the form of Mr. Jackson smoking marijuana, getting high.”
Dahl, the judge, agreed.
“Kadillak’s future was in your hands. I don’t believe in retribution. I don’t believe in getting even. But I have to believe in justice for the citizens,” Dahl told Jackson after denying his bid for probation.
“I believe your actions were unintended. I have a more difficult time believing they were accidental.”