It took an hour for a Jefferson Parish jury of six men and six women to find Raymond Riego Jr., of Marrero, not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2012 shaking death of his 3-month-old daughter.
The third-floor halls of 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna were filled Thursday evening with the wails of the girl’s grandmother after the verdict was read in Judge Stephen Enright’s courtroom.
“Oh, God help me, Jesus … my baby,” the woman screamed as she was helped into an elevator by sobbing family members. “What is wrong with these people?”
Inside, a visibly relieved Riego thanked his public defender, Graham Bosworth, and was ordered immediately released from Jefferson Parish Prison, where he’s been held for almost four years since admitting to investigators that he shook Madison Nicole Hughes while caring for her at the home of the child’s mother’s family on Annette Drive in Marrero on Jan. 26, 2012.
To convict him, the jury needed to find Riego’s actions were, at minimum, criminal negligence showing a gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care.
Riego, 42, was alone in a bedroom with his daughter and allegedly told investigators he shook her because she stopped breathing after he rolled over on her.
The next morning, Hughes’ face was cold to the touch, and Riego told the girl’s mother to call 911 before he left for Mobile, Alabama, with the mother’s father. The child was rushed to the emergency room and died three days later from injuries to her brain consistent with shaken-baby syndrome.
Jurors were asked to make sharply divergent interpretations of the evidence presented Wednesday and Thursday.
Assistant District Attorney Jody Fortunato, who prosecuted the case with Seth Shute, said during closing arguments that Riego shook the child to stop her from crying and locked the door to deal with what he had done.
Prosecutors said his decision to leave for Alabama the next morning was evidence of his callousness, and they pointed to Riego’s confessions to investigators and later to family members while in jail. A cellmate also testified that Riego told him he was drunk and on pills that night and that he shook the child to stop it from crying.
“No baby has ever died from crying,” Fortunato told jurors. “I wish he would have just let Madison cry instead of doing what he did.”
Bosworth, however, said Riego shook the child because she was having trouble breathing and was being treated for a respiratory infection at the time.
He pointed to testimony from a witness who heard Madison cry and then saw Riego get a bottle from the kitchen and return to the room just before the crying stopped. He also noted the girl’s grandmother admitted to the police that she had shaken the child the following morning shortly before Hughes was taken to the hospital.
“The mere fact that this is a horrible tragedy,” he said, “does not mean that he’s a cruel man and does not mean he meant to hurt his child and does not mean he should spend the rest of his life in jail.”
Bosworth said Riego, who had an 11th-grade education, may not have reacted properly to the child’s actions but that his tragic mistake did not rise to the level necessary to convict him of second-degree murder.
“This is a man who loved his daughter and made a poor decision because he was scared,” Bosworth said.
He said Riego’s confessions on the phone while in jail were the words of a man who believed he was responsible for his child’s death.
Bosworth said the testimony of the cellmate wasn’t credible because he was only looking for a deal and, when he couldn’t get one, took the stand only because he faced additional jail time if he didn’t.
Riego was facing mandatory life in prison if convicted.
The grandmother was helped outside to a waiting ambulance after the verdict but left with family members in a car. The child’s mother died two years ago in a car accident.