MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — “Remember what Baby Todd went through.”
That’s what Berkeley County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Watson told the jury Tuesday as the trial got underway in the scalding death of a 14-month-old child.
Michael McKinley, 31, of Hedgesville, faces a single count of death of a child by a parent, guardian or custodian by child neglect.
The charges stem from the May 2016 death of 14-month-old Wesley Todd Mowery III, whom prosecutors say was scalded with hot bath water while under the care of McKinley.
Watson said the prosecution intends to prove McKinley’s actions were the “malicious, intentional abuse of a 14-month-old baby that led to that baby’s death, ” and urged the jurors to hold the defendant accountable for his actions.
Watson said “Baby Todd,” as he was referred to throughout most of the proceedings, was walking and had just recently learned how to climb out of the tub. Watson said evidence would come forth that would prove that McKinley “filled a bathtub full of scalding water and forcibly immersed Baby Todd in scalding water.”
Watson said expert witnesses would put forth evidence of burn patterns consistent with forcible immersion. Watson said the defendant waited until the baby’s mother got home before driving out to a hospital and told law enforcement conflicting versions of the events that day.
While he acknowledged the jury has the option to find the defendant guilty of neglect instead of abuse, he urged the jurors to opt for the latter.
“The defendant forcibly immersed Baby Todd into scalding water and (the baby) died as a result,” Watson said. “This was no accident. This was intentional.”
Defense attorney Mark Sutton cautioned the jury that opening statements are not evidence and that they must decide the case based on the evidence provided during the trial.
Sutton characterized McKinley as a man who was enjoying a new start and relishing his role as a caretaker of his girlfriend’s children, even going to parenting classes.
In his opening statements, Sutton said on the day of the scalding, McKinley had played some video games, smoked marijuana, and drank some alcohol. He said the defendant had let the stopper out of the bathtub and went outside but came back when he heard a noise. He said his client panicked when he saw the child and did not call 911 because he did not know the boy’s mother, Brittany Reuille had left her cell phone at the house.
Witnesses called Tuesday in the case included neighbors and emergency services workers who were on scene at the fender bender the pair got into as they were driving the toddler to the hospital. Each described a consistent scene: a baby who was bright red all over his body and unresponsive.
Berkeley County Emergency Ambulance Authority E-M-T Jason McFarland said the baby was “wrapped in a towel or blanket and red as the sun from head to toe.”
He detailed for the jury attempts the ambulance crews made to open the child’s airway and get liquids into his body before he was airlifted out to a D.C.-area burn center where the child succumbed to his injuries.
“I’ve tried a long time to forget this call,” McFarland said of the events of that day. “It’s terrifying.”
Hedgesville Firefighter and EMT Bradley Crowell testified he was tasked with trying to separate the child’s fingers and toes and wrap them in burn paper so they wouldn’t fuse together. “In eight years,” he said, “it’s the worst I’ve seen with a child.”
Testimony continued from neighbors and West Virginia State Police. School bus video of the auto accident and pictures from the child’s home were entered into evidence.
Attorneys plan to call in expert witnesses and relatives, including the child’s mother in the coming days.
Brittany Reuille has entered a plea agreement in the case and is scheduled to be sentenced in May. She previously faced three counts of child neglect creating substantial bodily harm after allegedly turning the hot water heater up prior to the incident because the water was not getting hot.
The trial could wrap up by the end of the week.
Story by WEPM Radio News reporter Marsha Chwalik