MARIETTA - A Belpre father is left facing up to five years in prison after a jury found him guilty Wednesday of all counts related to an October 2010 fire that killed his 2-year-old daughter.
James E. "Butch" Jackson II, 51, showed no reaction to the verdict, although members of his family let out an audible gasp as the guilty verdicts were read, the first being a conviction for third-degree felony involuntary manslaughter. Other charges included third-degree felony child endangering and a misdemeanor charge of child endangering.
After the decision was read, Washington County Common Pleas Judge Ed Lane ruled the felony convictions should be merged for sentencing purposes. It leaves Jackson facing up to five years in prison at his March 9 sentencing. His bond was revoked and he was taken into custody. By law, any sentence imposed on the misdemeanor conviction will run concurrently to any felony sentence.
Photo by Brad Bauer
James E. “Butch” Jackson II listens Wednesday as verdicts were read against him in Washington County Common Pleas Court.
"I believe (child endangering and involuntary manslaughter) are allied offenses," Lane said to the attorneys, looking for an argument, which didn't come.
Allied offenses are crimes with similar elements, or where the commission of one leads to the commission of the other.
It took the jury of nine men and three women three hours to decide the case. The trial began on Monday. Jackson did not testify in his own defense.
Prosecutors had argued Jackson left the girl and her 4-year-old brother unsupervised outside their Belpre home on Oct. 18, 2010. The 2-year-old, Bianca Jackson, was killed in a fire that started in a vacant neighboring residence.
The child's mother, Chrystal Dillon, 25, faced identical charges to Jackson and was convicted in September of third-degree felony child endangering and was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to complete a six-month rehabilitation program.
The jury in her case could not reach a verdict on the manslaughter charge. She had also faced up to five years in prison.
Assistant Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings said he could have pursued a retrial against Dillon. He said he did not because he anticipated the charges would be considered allied.
"She wouldn't have faced any more time," Rings said, adding that only one or two jurors in that case were opposed to a manslaughter conviction. "We presented a similar case and we have a similar result, so I'm pleased with that."
In arguing for child endangerment and manslaughter convictions against Jackson, Rings said the fire was likely started by the 4-year-old boy, who may have had a lighter or candle. He alleged the boy entered the vacant home, possibly in search of fireworks that were stored there by Jackson. There was testimony the boy had set several fires, including a fire on the deck of his home a day prior to the fatal fire.
Testimony at trial was that Jackson and Dillon were likely in a back bedroom looking for paperwork when the fire broke out. They believed the children were playing on a deck that connected their home and the vacant home that burned.
In his closing argument, Rings focused on Jackson and his knowledge of the child's fascination with fire.
"Mr. Jackson is not accused of purposely causing the death of the child," Rings said. "He was reckless. Consider his failures to act: Remove the source of ignition from access to the child- just put the lighters up; Secure the building; Keep an eye on the kids so when something happens - a fire starts - he can be there to take the child to safety.
"Had he done any one of those things we may not be here today," Rings said. "But the failure to act resulted in the death of Bianca Jackson."
Defense attorney Jack Blakeslee, of Caldwell, argued the state's own witnesses couldn't back up their claims. He noted a state fire marshal who testified earlier this week said he was unable to determine who started the fire, or even when or where it began. He also said it wasn't clear if the fireworks had any role in the fire.
"The state is asking you to find a little boy set this fire...Can you do that?" Blakeslee asked jurors in closing arguments. "They're asking you to find fireworks had something to do with this fire...Did they prove that?
"You can go back and find Butch Jackson not guilty and go back home and talk to your loved ones and neighbors and you can tell them you found Butch Jackson not guilty and not feel ashamed," Blakeslee said. "You would be fully justified in doing so and that's what I'm asking you to do."
Rings asked jurors to consider all the ways a fire can be detected, including sight, smell or sound.
"Many times you can smell a fire long before you see or hear it," he said. "Had (Jackson) been closer, paying attention and exercising his duty of care and protection for these children, he may have been able to prevent the fire, prevent the children from going in that building or at the very least taken the children out. If you consider what Butch Jackson knew, he had a duty as a parent to protect those children from what happened. This was something that could have been so easily prevented and he was aware of a lot of the problems that existed."