HOUSTON (AP) — The state’s highest criminal court threw out the convictions of an East Texas couple on Wednesday, ordering they be acquitted of charges they were responsible for their young granddaughter getting severe scalding burns in the family bathtub more than four years ago.
Kenneth Walker, 59, and Shelley Walker, 64, both of Tyler, have been in prison since 2012, serving 25-year sentences for their convictions in Smith County for injury to a child. They weren’t eligible for parole until 2024.
But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overruled 6-3 a lower appeals court and said the evidence presented by prosecutors didn’t support the jury’s verdict.
“We conclude that the evidence in this case can rationally be said to establish nothing more than a mere suspicion of wrongdoing,” Judge Cheryl Johnson wrote in a 34-page ruling. “The evidence is insufficient to prove that either appellant engaged in the conduct at issue in this case — namely intentionally immersing (their granddaughter) in hot water.”
Colleagues disagreed, like Judge Kevin Yeary. His 55-page dissent said that while he agreed with the acquittal of Shelley Johnson, he would have returned her husband’s case to the 12th Texas Court of Appeals to review whether he could have been convicted of a lesser offense. The ruling “prematurely” acquitted Kenneth Walker altogether, Yeary said.
The Smith County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a telephone message left by The Associated Press.
Court records show the couple had adopted their nearly 3-year-old granddaughter and her two older brothers because the children’s drug-addicted biological parents abused and neglected the kids.
Prosecutors had argued Kenneth, his wife or both of them held their granddaughter over the tub and placed her feet in the hot water as discipline for playing in the bathroom on Feb. 28, 2012. Records show the girl, along with an older brother who was described as having a form of autism, had a history of locking themselves in the bathroom, turning on water or blocking the toilet and flooding the room.
At the trial, prosecutors called three physicians to testify about the child’s burns and how their grandparents could have been responsible for them.
“The jury acted irrationally in deferring to the experts’ unsupported conclusions,” the criminal appeals court said. “We do not know, nor can we know, how the child came to be injured without resort to speculation. Putting a scientific gloss over that speculation does not make the evidence more certain.”
Defense attorneys argued the two children again had locked themselves in, turned on the water and that the girl was unable to get out of tub and suffered second-degree burns. They also contended the grandparents had physical limitations that would have prevented them from suspending the girl over the tub.
One of the trial lawyers, Scott Ellis, said Wednesday he’d been “dumbfounded” by the jury’s verdict.
“We’re absolutely thrilled and very grateful,” he said of the court-ordered acquittal. “I think it’s the right ruling.”
Neither Walker nor his wife had a criminal record, he said.
“These are not the type of people who would intentionally go out of their way to harm their grandchildren,” Ellis said.
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