After deliberating about two hours, a jury found Akeem Whitfield guilty of second-degree murder for the death of his girlfriend’s 10-month-old daughter.
By all accounts, Iyonna Brown’s 10 months and 17 days on earth were a stark existence. She lived with her 4-year-old sister, mother and sometimes her mother’s boyfriend, Akeem Whitfield, in welfare apartments and motels.
And so it was, when Whitfield was convicted Thursday of burning and beating her to death, she had no family members or other loved ones in the courtroom audience to see her moment of justice.
That fact was not lost on the district attorney, R. Michael Tantillo.
“It was very sad,” he said.
Which is not to say that the baby girl will be forgotten.
After determining Whitfield was guilty of second-degree murder, at about 2:15 p.m., the 12-member jury requested a private meeting with the D.A. He said they wanted to know where Iyonna was buried, presumably so they could pay their final respects. She is buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Geneva in a section reserved for mostly young children and babies, the grave marked with a temporary marker.
“For many of the jurors with whom I spoke, it was clearly an emotional experience,” Tantillo said.
Testimony in the four-day trial before Judge Craig Doran started Tuesday morning with jarring photos of Iyonna after she died. On small screens set up in front of their seats, jurors saw graphic photo after graphic photo of the infant’s body. Her left eye was bruised and swollen shut, a bruise appeared over her right eye, and her chin was scraped. Her chubby legs were so badly burned that much of the skin had sloughed off.
The images included Iyonna’s last home, Room 27 of the Woodridge Motel on Lakeshore Drive in Canandaigua. Boxes filled with clothes and other items were stacked to the ceiling, dirty dishes filled the small bathroom sink, and toys and kitchen utensils covered the floor.
The jury also saw snapshots, presumably taken by Whitfield or Iyonn’a mother, Heather Brown, that show the baby sitting on a bed surrounded by beer bottles. The photos were on a disposable camera that Deputy Bill Martin testified he found in the room and had developed at Wegmans.
Since Whitfield was the only adult present in Room 27 on that fateful day, May 30, 2007, authorities don’t know exactly how the injuries were inflicted. They have suggested he kicked her — as her 4-year-old sister told an investigator — or beat her with a blunt object. Her skull was cracked in three places. A doctor testified such injuries would have required the same force as a fall from a two-story building or an unrestrained, 35 mph car crash into a wall or tree. As for the burns, they have suggested that she could have been set in hot water or that Whitfield threw hot liquid at her.
Instead of caring for Iyonna that day, Whitfield “brutalized her — he beat her,” Tantillo said in his closing argument Thursday morning. “We really can’t mince words here, he tortured her on that day.”
Whitfield gave a few statements to police, but he changed his story about what happened several times. At first, he told investigators he wasn’t at the motel that day — he had gone crayfishing and then visited a friend on Bristol Street in Canandaigua. Finally, he admitted he was there and said that Iyonna rolled off the motel-room bed while he went across the room to get a diaper. Her legs became entangled in the cord of an electric frying pan on a table by the bed, and the pan and its contents — cooking sausages, hot water and oil — spilled on top of her, he said. Iyonna’s head injuries must’ve been caused by him kicking her while trying to get the pan off her, he told authorities.
Iyonna’s mother had placed her children under Whitfield’s care for part of that day so she could take a bus to Geneva for job-training. She returned about 6 p.m., and according to police, saw Iyonna was hurt. But Brown did not seek medical help until minutes before midnight when the baby was moments from death. Had she sought treatment sooner, Iyonna could have survived, said doctors who testified for Tantillo.
“We can only hope that she was unconscious for that amount of time, because if she wasn’t it must have been agonizing and excruciating for that little kid,” Tantillo said in his closing argument.
Brown is charged with second-degree manslaughter for allegedly causing her daughter’s death “recklessly” by not seeking help until it was too late. Her trial is set to begin March 24. She is being represented by attorney Robert Zimmerman, who sat through portions of Whitfield’s trial.
Whitfield, who showed no emotion when the verdict was read aloud, was sent back to the Ontario County Jail without bail to await his sentencing by Doran at 10 a.m. April 22. He faces a maximum of 25 years to life in prison. He had also been charged with first-degree manslaughter, a lesser charge, but jurors were not to consider it if they decided he was guilty of murder.
Whitfield is also facing charges in unrelated cases, some for allegedly lying to collect Social Services benefits, another for allegedly threatening someone in Geneva with a nail-studded board.
Outside of the courthouse Thursday, his attorney, Tucker, expressed his disappointment with the verdict, saying, “There will be an appeal.” He also said he was thankful of the jury’s efforts, acknowledging, “This was a tough case to sit through.”
Sheriff’s Investigators Brad and Jackie Falkey, who are husband and wife, were among those seated in the audience when the guilty verdict was read. After testifying, they sat through most of the trial, then waited while the jury deliberated for about two hours.
“I’ve lived this thing since May of last year,” said Brad Falkey. “I’ve never seen remorse on anyone’s part or a hint of anyone being upset she died — that bothers you.”
He was among the small crowd at a graveside burial service that wasn’t even attended by Iyonna’s own parents, even though authorities offered them transportation.
“Very few people cared at all about her, or even knew she existed,” he said.
Jessica Pierce can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 250, or at email@example.com.