District Judge Steve Ellis convicted Jekaris Bryant, 19, of capital murder Friday for the death of his four-week-old daughter in December 2015 and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
The state did not seek the death penalty. Addressing a crowded courtroom that included emotional Bryant family members and numerous law enforcement officers, Ellis said life in prison with no parole was the only sentence allowed by state law in a non-death penalty capital case.
Bryant family members began crying and wailing after Ellis announced his verdict. Makahla Brewer, the mother of Breyla Ann Bryant — who died at the hands of Jekaris Bryant the afternoon of Dec. 13, 2015 — sat among Bryant family members. Brewer continued living with Bryant after he was released from jail on bond in June and is pregnant with his child.
Ellis’ verdict ended an intense, emotional four-day bench trial that began Tuesday morning with District Attorney Micheal Murray’s opening statement to Ellis. Bryant earlier chose to have the judge, rather than a jury, hear his case.
The prosecution team of District Attorney Micheal Murray and Assistant Distant Attorney Micheal Murray maintained that Breyla died as a result of being violently shaken by Bryant while he was home alone with the baby. The infant sustained extensive injuries including 32 rib fractures.
Defense attorney Jud Woodley argued that that the baby’s death was an accident that happened when she choked on formula and Bryant tried to save her, not intending to hurt Breyla when he patted her lightly on the back and shook her gently.
“This is a very tragic situation for all concerned,” Ellis said as he prepared to announce his verdict.
There was no evidence Bryant “intentionally murdered his young baby,” Ellis said. But the prosecution proved Bryant acted voluntarily — meaning it was not an accident — and did know the results of his actions toward the baby, Ellis said.
“It’s appropriate to note the state elected not to seek the death penalty, and that’s appropriate,” Ellis said. “That would compound the tragedy. … the defendant was barely 18 at the time of this terrible occurrence. This defenseless baby was about a month old.”
Woodley told Ellis during his closing argument that there are only possibilities, not conclusive proof, about what happened to Breyla. “There’s not way for us to know exactly what happened,” Woodley said.
“I think we have two competing theories, and that’s all they are.”
Woodley said the state argued Bryant “acted out of anger and frustration.”
An alternate theory was the perception from Bryant’s standpoint “that this was a crisis” because the baby was choking, Woodley argued.
“His reaction was one of panic or shock, and he lost control of his own strength, and he lost control of his physical response to that crisis.
Woodley noted that Bryant had scored 73 on an IQ test given by Brownwood psychologist Dr. Pennissi Taylor, which put him at “borderline” intelligence.
“I know that a person’s IQ doesn’t absolve them of their criminal responsibility,” Woodley said. “We have a young man with a 73 IQ the day after his daughter was born.
“So let’s combine a 73 IQ and a perceived crisis situation and loss of control, extreme fear, adrenaline spike, not probably knowing how strong he is. If you combine all this we can gain an understanding of what happened.”
Murray began his closing argument by saying her knew many of the people in the courtroom and knew there were “different opinions as to what this case is about. I know some of the people here and I know people who are in and out of Jekaris Bryant’s corner.
“This is not a popularity contest. We are here to obtain justice for baby Breyla Bryant. We are not here to allow what happened to her to be swept under a rug as some sort of accident.”
Murray recounted numerous injuries the baby sustained and noted Bryant had given emergency room doctors a “false history” of the events preceding Breyla’s death in an effort to conceal his actions. Bryant also left out details when he gave a statement to Texas Ranger Jason Shea — until Shea confronted him with statements from other witnesses that showed Bryant was not being truthful, Murray said.
“This baby died as the result of serious traumatic injury, and it is consistent with shaking,” Murray said. “(Medical experts) can’t quantify the force involved in shaking. It was extreme, violent forces placed on this child. … this is not shaking a martini, not light shaking or light patting.”
Murray said he knew it was difficult for Bryant to come to terms with what he did and “face the music … however, that does not take away what happened to baby Breyla.”
Murray noted that Bryant had been home alone with Breyla for about 30 minutes while the baby’s mother and a friend drove to Walmart to buy formula.
It’s likely the baby woke up crying, as evidence indicated she had a severe diaper rash that became irritated when the baby passed waste, Murray said. He also said the prosecution doesn’t dispute Bryant’s account that he tried to feed her.
At some point while alone with the baby, Murray argued, he shook her violently and made “zero effort to try to save that baby or do anything for that baby.”
Referring to Bryant’s IQ score, Murray noted Bryant’s demeanor when he was interviewed by Shea. The prosecution played a video of that interview during the trial.
“Just watching him in the video, it’s clear he is mentally with it,” Murray said. “He is clearly a thinking man in that interview.”
Bryant “knew what would happen” if he lost his ability to be a good parent and shook the baby, Murray argued.
“It’s a horrible case,” Murray said. “Nobody likes to see babies injured. But we still have to do our jobs. What’s right is right. He still needs to be held accountable for this baby’s death.”
Murray noted that evidence showed Bryant had been more upset about the death of his dog than he was about his daughter’s death.