A man convicted this week of murdering a two-year-old boy in 2003 will be back in Letcher Circuit Court next week to face formal sentencing.
Letcher Circuit Judge Sam Wright is expected to follow the jury’s recommendation and sentence 46-year-old Jeff rey Allen to life in prison when Allen stands before him during an Oct. 11 hearing.
The jury deliberated evidence presented in the week-long trial for five hours on Monday afternoon before agreeing that Allen murdered Dakota Yonts by punching the child so hard in the stomach it caused him to bleed to death. The jury decided Allen should be sentenced to life in prison.
“I have always thought he was the responsible party,” said Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks. “The handprint alone should tell you who did it.”
During the first trial held in January 2006, a jury made up of Pike County residents found Allen guilty of murder and recommended a 50- year sentence.
“It’s one that I always said the jury was already correct,” said Banks. “It’s hard to try a case a second time.”
Banks said the latest jury chose a stiff er sentence for Allen, making him less likely to get parole with the life sentence. Banks said in both recommendations Allen would be eligible to meet with a parole board in 20 years.
“With life you will never get time served, just chances to meet with the parole board,” said Banks.
The jury had the option of two lesser charges, second-degree manslaughter or reckless homicide. Banks said Allen would have been sent straight to the parole board on either of those charges because, with the three-and-a-half years Allen has already served in prison, he would have been eligible for parole. Reckless homicide carries between one and five years in prison and second-degree manslaughter carries a penalty of two years.
Allen was in prison until January 2009, a period of three years, when the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered the case retried after ruling the 2006 jury was improperly allowed to hear recordings of telephone calls made to E- 911 operators in Hazard after Dakota’s death was reported.
The Supreme Court was closely divided in its decision to order the new trial, with three of seven justices authoring a dissenting opinion which said that Allen’s conviction should stand because the admission of the 911 tapes was “harmless” error.
Dakota was the son of Andy and Delania Yonts of Mayking. He and his sister and two brothers — then aged three, five and nine months — were placed in foster care with Jeff rey Allen and his wife, Eugenia, in early January 2003 after the Yontses were charged with neglect for not keeping their home clean. The children were scheduled to be returned to their natural parents on April 1, 2003, just five days after Dakota was murdered.
Banks argued, successfully, that Jeff rey Allen murdered Dakota on the night of March 23, 2003, by beating the child and choking him after he became angry at being interrupted during an NCAA Tournament basketball game between the University of Kentucky and Wisconsin.
Dakota’s death was caused by a large tear in his mesentery, a fold of tissue which connects the small intestines to the back and contains many veins and arteries.
Whitesburg attorney James W. Craft II argued on Allen’s behalf that the injury was caused by a fifth child staying in the Allen home — a five-year-old boy that Allen and his wife said they had hoped to adopt.
“Dakota was sick,” said Craft. “Dakota was lifeless. Dakota was not able to fight off this bigger child.”
Craft said the small bruises were consistent with the end of a child’s toy known as a “stick horse.”
“Those bruises are consistent with a thump,” said Craft. “That’s what a child would do. It’s not what an adult would do.”
Craft said the heel of the cowboy boot could have caused the injuries and they occurred while the child was lying on a hard spot in the floor of the children’s bedroom.
Craft said Cristin Rolf, the state medical examiner, testified on Sept. 29 that a child could conflict the fatal injuries.
“That is the key piece of evidence in this case,” said Craft.
Kentucky State Police Det. Dean Craft testified during the trial that Eugenia Allen first said she found the three-year-old girl on top of Dakota with her knees on his stomach and her hands on each side of his neck. Jeff rey Allen switched the blame to the five-year-old boy, who he said was stomping on Dakota’s chest and stomach while wearing cowboy boots.
Dr. Betty Spivack, a forensic pediatrician in the state medical examiner’s office in Louisville at the time of the murder, testified on Oct. 1 that the cowboy boots, stick horse and a little plastic hammer from the game “Don’t Break the Ice” could not have caused numerous bruises on Dakota’s body.
“If (the stick horse) was applied with force to the abdomen and belly of Dakota Yonts you would have an entirely different set of injuries,” said Spivack. “You would get a lacerating tear on the skin before you get to the mesentery. We don’t see that on Dakota, instead we see a larger grouping of small bruises on the belly button.”
Spivack said the plastic hammer had demarcated edges and none of Dakota’s bruises matched the pattern mark of the plastic hammer.
Spivack said none of the bruises had tread marks from the rubber heels of the cowboy boots.
“If you are kicking with the toe you have a crescent,” said Spivack. “None like the round bruises we see.”
In addition to the 27 bruises on Dakota’s abdomen, which Spivack said were knuckles marks from a fist, Spivack described bruising around Dakota’s neck which appeared to be a handprint of a large man. The accused five-year-old boy’s handprint was traced and was smaller than Spivack’s hand. She said she placed her hand to the handprint and her print was much smaller than the print around Dakota’s neck.
The jury heard testimony Sept. 28 from Tracy Cornett, a social worker who said she stopped by the Allens’ Sandlick home unannounced around 9:30 a.m. on March 27, 2003, to introduce herself. She noticed that Dakota seemed lifeless.
Sandy Hogg, an employee with the Letcher County Board of Education who was volunteering in 2003 with the Kentucky Court Appointed Special Advocate program for neglected children, told jurors last week that she and Amanda Bolling also stopped by the Allen home on March 27, 2003.
Hogg spent most of the 45-minute visit holding Dakota and thought the child acted as if he might be sick. Hogg said she didn’t see any visible bruising on Dakota when Eugenia Allen undressed him down to his diaper.
Soon after Bolling and Hogg left the Allen home, Mrs. Allen went shopping in Hazard.
Banks told jurors in his opening statement on Monday that after Mrs. Allen reached Hazard, she took three phone calls from Jeff rey Allen while standing in the checkout line at K-Mart filling out three vouchers for birthday presents for her foster children. (Kentucky reimburses foster parents $25 for a birthday gift for a child in their care.) Banks said the first voucher was filled out very neatly with every word spelled correctly, but by the time she answered the third phone call she left out much of her mailing address and misspelled several words.
Banks said it took Eugenia Allen 45 minutes to get home from Hazard, at which time Mrs. Allen found her husband sitting on a couch holding Dakota.
Eugenia Allen testified on Oct. 1 that she believes her husband is innocent.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in him,” said Mrs. Allen.
Allen was laid off from his job as a coal company security officer at the time of Dakota’s death. He and his wife were being paid more than $500 per month for each child they were keeping in their home as foster parents.