Facing trial next month on a charge of first-degree murder in the brutal death of 18-month-old Jayla Haag, Justin Edwards pleaded no contest Wednesday to lesser charges including involuntary manslaughter.
Edwards is the man who, according to the prosecutor, beat and squeezed much of the life out of the child. She was the daughter of his girlfriend, and in March 2012, the three lived in a small El Dorado duplex that has been described as a meth house.
Someone in the courtroom Wednesday could be heard sobbing as Butler County Attorney Darrin Devinney read the alleged facts of Jayla’s death.
Earlier in the 40-minute hearing, a shackled Edwards wiped tears running down his nose as he listened to a recitation of the charges he was accepting under a plea agreement.
Edwards, 31, now faces sentencing before Butler County Chief Judge David Ricke on March 12. The remaining question is how many years Edwards will have to spend in prison.
Edwards’ court-appointed attorney, David Moses, said after the hearing that if the judge follows the plea agreement, he anticipates that Edwards would face about 9 and a half years in prison, which could be reduced by credit for time already served and credit for good behavior.
The plea agreement calls for the lower end of the sentencing range, Moses said.
Devinney, however, gave a much wider possible sentencing range in an interview after the hearing, saying that Edwards could face a minimum of three years in prison to a maximum of about 28 years.
If Edwards had been convicted of first-degree murder – the charge he was facing until the plea agreement – he would have had to spend 25 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole consideration.
Now his sentence depends on the judge, who has to heed sentencing guidelines and higher court rulings. Ricke also has to follow a set of rules to determine what Edwards’ criminal history is. Edwards has felony drug-possession and intent-to-sell convictions in Butler County for crimes committed in 2011, state records show.
Another factor is whether Ricke follows the recommendation of the plea agreement that Edwards serve consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences for the three counts: aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and child abuse.
After the hearing, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney addressed the meaning of the case.
“This has been a daunting case since March of 2012,” when Jayla suffered the injuries, Devinney said.
“It’s deeply affected the entire community,” he said. “And it’s always been my goal to make sure justice is served.”
Moses, the defense attorney, said, “Jayla’s dead, and she’s not coming back. That’s the sad part about the whole case.
“She was the only innocent person in this whole case. There’s no reason for her to have died, that a defenseless baby is dead, clearly by bad decisions and acts by many others.”
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 suffering from malnourishment and tested positive for methamphetamine. Jayla’s mother, Alyssa Haag, told an investigator that Edwards struck the girl and repeatedly choked her, the affidavit says.
On Wednesday, 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; that according to the girl’s mother, Edwards squeezed her chest to the point of her becoming incapacitated; that he slapped her in the face and 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, 2015.
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.