Prosecutors can't prove a Jacksonville man murdered his infant son, the 26-year-old defendant's lawyer told a Pulaski County jury on Tuesday, describing the baby's death as accidental or, at worst, negligent.
Kevonce Lamont Ephriam is charged with capital murder and faces a life sentence. Attorney Jimmy Morris said in opening statements that prosecutors lack evidence to show Ephriam deliberately killed the 3-month-old boy, Kassius "Kash" Ephriam, in February 2020 at Ephriam's Darryl Court home.
Ephriam's trial, scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. today, is expected to run until Thursday. Morris urged jurors to pay close attention to the testimony and evidence, saying none of it would live up to prosecution claims Ephriam had intentionally killed the baby.
In turn, deputy prosecutor Beth Kanopsic told the 10-woman, two-man jury seated before Circuit Judge Karen Whatley that Kassius was subjected to a bone-breaking, skin-scraping ordeal in which he was "forcibly and violently smothered" in a crushing attack that broke the 12-pound infant's back.
Doctors agree a baby that young could not have inflicted the injuries himself, she said. The baby's mother had dropped Kassius off healthy and happy at his father's three days before he died, and Ephriam admits he was the only other person with the infant in the last hours of his life, the prosecutor said.
Further, Ephriam had quarreled with the baby's mother the night before, in part because she owed him $20 and couldn't immediately repay it, Kanopsic said. He'd threatened both mother and child the night before the baby was found dead at Ephriam's home, she said.
Police called to the Ephriam home found the baby without a pulse but with his body still warm enough that they hoped firefighters could revive him, according to Logan Kulesa, the first officer on the scene. He said he found Ephriam performing two-finger chest compressions on the bloody nosed baby, telling jurors he sent the man away to take over resuscitation efforts because he didn't think Ephriam was trying hard enough.
"Not aggressively at all," Kulesa told jurors when asked to describe Ephriam's efforts. "The best way I could describe it was very light."
Kassius' mother testified the baby had just gotten over a minor cold two days before she took him to stay with his father, telling jurors Ephriam regularly cared for the boy at his home. Undrea Nicole Brown, a mother of three sons, said the baby, her youngest child, was a happy baby who barely cried.
Kassius had been with Ephriam for three days before he died. Brown told jurors she and Ephriam had argued the night before in phone calls and text messages because Ephriam had given her $20 when she dropped off Kassius and wanted her to repay him when she picked up the baby. Brown, 28, said she didn't have the money and was struggling to find someone to drive her to Ephriam's home to pick up the baby.
"He was upset because he said he had to go to work and I didn't have a legit ride,"she said.
She said she could have gotten a lift from a male friend that night to retrieve the baby but Ephriam told her not to bring a strange man to his house to collect his child. He also told her he would not give up the baby until she gave him the money, Brown told jurors. She said that if he didn't give her the child when she got there, she would "put the police in his life" in one text message.
Brown said Ephriam indicated he might hurt the child when she asked him if he would do something to the child but struggled to explain how she came to ask that question beyond saying the two were "just arguing."
"When I asked him if he was going to hurt my baby, he said, 'I might,'" she testified. "I really didn't have a reason to ask."
On cross-examination, Brown said the pair never lived together and had a provocative relationship, regularly digging at each other to get a reaction. Brown said she didn't take Ephriam's threats against her and Kassius seriously because he regularly talked to her like that.
Brown said the only noticeable marks on the baby's body that last time she saw him were a patch of dried skin on his nose, a mostly healed scratch on one cheek caused by him scratching himself and a bowel-surgery scar on his abdomen from when he was less than a month old.
Dr. Jennifer Forsyth, the state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the baby, documented numerous scrapes, cuts and bruises to the baby's head, face, neck and torso, some of them visible with others found under the skin, including near his heart and on his tongue. She also noted that the boy's philtrum -- the cleft above the upper lip -- had been torn.
She said Kassius also suffered from fractured ribs and a fractured vertebrae in the middle of his back, acknowledging that some of his injuries could have been caused by resuscitation efforts.