Crime & Courts

El Dorado man gets 128-month sentence in death of 18-month-old Jayla Haag

Justin Edwards listens to victims’ statements in Butler County District Court during sentencing Thursday. Edwards pleaded no contest to charges of beating and choking 18-month-old Jayla Haag, the daughter of his girlfriend, in March 2012.
Justin Edwards listens to victims’ statements in Butler County District Court during sentencing Thursday. Edwards pleaded no contest to charges of beating and choking 18-month-old Jayla Haag, the daughter of his girlfriend, in March 2012. The Wichita Eagle

In a courtroom where people clutched tissues to dab their eyes, the moment had arrived to hear from the man headed to prison for the horrific killing of 18-month-old Jayla Haag.

Three years after the toddler’s death shook El Dorado, prompting the slogan “Justice for Jayla,” it was the man’s last chance to ask the judge for leniency.

Justin Edwards, wearing jail orange and sitting next to his defense attorney, leaned closer to the microphone Thursday morning so Chief Judge David Ricke could hear him.

The 31-year-old – who allegedly showed no mercy to a helpless little girl – got no mercy from the judge.

Still, although Edwards received the maximum sentence allowable under the law, according to the judge, the bottom line is Edwards might be out of prison in eight years, his attorney said after the hearing.

As it played out in Butler County District Court, Edwards sounded fairly confident and deliberate as he bent forward and spoke. Edwards told Ricke that he still loves Jayla and referred to her as his daughter. She was his girlfriend’s daughter, and the three lived in a small El Dorado apartment that has been described as a meth house.

Edwards said “my mistake is not protecting my daughter,” that “when she died, part of me died,” that he “would trade places with her” and that prison time will take him away from his children as they grow up.

Then the judge spoke. Ricke started by saying that Jayla should be alive today, that she should be a happy, smiling 4-year-old. Then the judge got blunt: She is not alive, he told Edwards, “because you killed her.”

“Mr. Edwards, this is not a minimum-sentence case; if this is not a maximum-sentence case, what would be?”

As an expressionless Edwards looked straight at the judge, Ricke continued: “You battered and abused this child to death. I don’t see any mitigation in that.

“The court has to think about Jayla,” Ricke added. She suffered a horrible death perhaps because she was crying, because she was hungry or thirsty or sick or just needed to be held, Ricke said.

Some of her teeth had been forcefully removed, the judge noted more than once.

Ricke then told Edwards he was rejecting a 114-month sentence recommended under a plea agreement and giving Edwards the maximum prison sentence allowed under the law – 128 months, or a little over a year longer than the recommendation.

Under the plea agreement, Edwards pleaded no contest in January to aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and child abuse.

He had been facing a first-degree murder charge, and if convicted of that more serious charge, he would have had to serve 25 years in prison before being considered for parole.

Now, he could get out of prison in about eight years, with credit for jail time served in the case and assuming he earns credit for good behavior in prison, said his defense attorney, David Moses.

After Edwards’ release, he will have to register with the state for 15 years as a violent offender.

According to the prosecutor, Edwards beat and choked Jayla.

An affidavit filed in Butler County District Court said that Jayla’s limp body was brought to a hospital. Her injuries included a fractured jaw, missing teeth that had been forcibly removed, severe head injuries and multiple bruises in different stages of healing. She also was malnourished and tested positive for methamphetamine.

Jayla’s mother, Alyssa Haag, told an investigator that Edwards struck the girl and repeatedly choked her, the affidavit said.

At the January hearing, Butler County Attorney Darrin Devinney told the judge that the factual basis for the new charges under the plea agreement include that Jayla died of complications related to multiple blunt-force injuries to her head. Devinney said that according to the girl’s mother, Edwards squeezed Jayla’s chest enough to incapacitate her. The prosecutor said that Edwards slapped the girl in the face, told her to “shut the … up” and told her mother not to seek treatment for the girl’s seizures.

Alyssa Haag pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter/reckless in her daughter’s death and has been in prison since the summer of 2013, with an earliest possible release of March 24.

In court Thursday, when it was Moses’ turn to speak to the judge, the defense attorney suggested without getting specific that plenty of people are to blame for not doing more to protect Jayla.

Others “know what involvement, if any, they had,” and their “sentence” will be their “own conscience,” Moses said.

One by one, Jayla’s relatives also stepped forward and spoke to the judge. Brian Beattie, Jayla’s maternal great-grandfather, told Ricke that child abuse is “rampant throughout Kansas” and that everyone should join in efforts to fight it. He asked that people “do this always in memory of Jayla.”

Sue Beattie, the maternal great-grandmother, said she didn’t know Edwards well but had heard that he would not have committed the crime if he had been sober, that drugs had ruined his life – and Jayla’s life – and harmed so many others.

If one person would realize that the pleasure of using meth is fleeting and brings tragic results, she said, “then Jayla would not have died in vain.”

Edwards has felony drug-possession and intent-to-sell convictions in Butler County for crimes committed in 2011, the year before Jayla’s death, state records show.

Wendi Vittitow, Jayla’s paternal grandmother, told the judge that Edwards deserved the maximum sentence. Vittitow said much of her grief comes from thinking about the pain that the child suffered.

Edwards’ mother gave a statement to the judge from the witness stand. Pamela Mackey noted her son did not plead guilty – only no contest. A no-contest plea does not admit guilt but recognizes that prosecutors have enough evidence to win a conviction at trial.

Mackey described him as a “sweet and loving man” and said she didn’t believe her son murdered Jayla.

“I think he made poor choices,” Mackey said. Mackey said later that by “poor choices,” she meant his choice of Jayla’s mother as a girlfriend. “He is not a cold-blooded monster,” she said.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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