A jury can hear about all of the prior physical abuse a Baton Rouge man allegedly inflicted on his 8-year-old son — including breaking the child’s leg, shoving his head into a toilet and hitting, choking and punching him — leading up to the boy’s beating death in 2012, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Michael Robertson, 50, is charged with first-degree murder in Xzayvion Riley’s death on June 12, 2012. There is no trial date, and prosecutors have not said if they will seek the death penalty.
Xzayvion’s mother, Lavaughn Riley, 35, also faces a first-degree murder count. She will be tried separately. Robertson was her boyfriend at the time of the boy’s death.
Prosecutors contend Xzayvion’s death was the culmination of an escalating pattern of alleged abuse that included Robertson injuring the boy’s mouth with a belt in November 2008; choking him and shoving his head into a toilet in August 2010; breaking his leg in February 2012 and neglecting to seek medical treatment; and, according to his sister, hitting and punching the boy “a lot” in the years leading up to his death and forcing him to run for unspecified amounts of time.
“Each of the acts at issue involves the battering and/or abuse of the victim by the defendant over the course of several years in his short life, and have independent and relevant bases for admissibility,” the Supreme Court wrote Friday.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III hailed the ruling as a victory for Xzayvion.
“This defendant prevented this child from his ability to speak to this jury as to his past abuse. Through the court’s ruling today, we are now able to have this defendant’s prior acts of abuse presented to the jury,” Moore said. “This child will be able to tell the jury the entire truth through the presentation of the prior abuse evidence.”
Jim Craig, who is Robertson’s lead attorney and co-director of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, noted that the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office investigated several of the alleged prior incidents of abuse and cleared Robertson of any wrongdoing.
“Criminal trials about the death of a child are always emotional, and there is a recognized danger that a jury may be unfairly influenced by allegations of other acts, even when the proof of these allegations is weak, as it is here,” Craig said. “But assuming the Supreme Court does not reconsider this ruling, we will prepare to show the jury that these alleged incidents do not prove that Michael Robertson abused his son Xzayvion.”
State District Judge Don Johnson ruled last year that the 2008 incident was too remote from the charged crime to be admissible at trial, but the high court disagreed Friday.
“The victim was only eight years old at the time of his murder, and acts of abuse perpetrated against him in the years before his death are not so remote as to negate their probative value,” the justices wrote.
They also reversed Johnson’s decision to bar prosecutors from using the observations of Xzayvion’s sister. The justices said the evidence she will testify about has independent relevance.
The 2010 incident, which left the boy with an injured neck and bruising to his upper and lower body and groin area, and the 2012 broken leg incident both are admissible as well, the high court said.
Johnson had determined that the neck injuries in the 2010 incident were more prejudicial than probative, and he allowed the introduction of the broken leg and lacerations and bruises from the February 2012 incident for the purpose of showing Robertson’s identity only.
“We find that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding these four incidents or permitting the state to introduce them only for a limited purpose,” the Supreme Court stated.
Following the alleged 2010 incident, the state Department of Children and Family Services put a safety plan in place to limit Robertson’s involvement with his son, prosecutors have said. The plan was in place until April 2011.
Xzayvion’s death was classified as a homicide. Coroner’s officials found he died of overwhelming infection caused by a ruptured bowel from blunt-force trauma to his abdomen. An autopsy revealed 60 external signs of recent and past trauma, including a human bite mark.
Riley has acknowledged that she held her son down in 2010 while Robertson hit him with an open hand on the stomach.
Craig also noted that Riley has said some of Xzayvion’s injuries occurred accidentally during what she described as horseplay between Robertson and the boy.