The retrial of a Sandlick man accused of murdering his foster child more than seven years ago began this week in Letcher Circuit Court.
Jurors began hearing testimony in the case of Jeff rey Allen, 46, on Tuesday. Allen is charged with murdering Dakota Yonts, 2-1/2, by beating the child severely after he refused to remain quiet during a tense NCAA Tournament basketball game involving the University of Kentucky in March 2003.
A jury found Allen guilty of murdering the child in 2006 and recommended the volunteer firefighter be sentenced to 50 years in prison. Allen was in prison until January 2009, when the Kentucky Supreme Court ordered the case retried in January 2009 after finding 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.
The case against Allen began on the night of March 27, 2003, when Dakota Yonts, whose body was badly bruised, was pronounced dead at the Whitesburg hospital. Dakota had been taken to the hospital for treatment after Allen’s wife, Eugena, returned from a shopping trip in Hazard to find her husband sitting on a couch holding the lifeless baby.
Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks told jurors during his opening statement on Monday the prosecution will prove the baby died of injuries caused by Jeffrey Allen. Banks told jurors that just two days before the murder, Dakota was examined by a nurse practitioner, Alicia Cook, and other health care workers who were unable to find any external injuries on Dakota when he was taken to the Whitesburg hospi tal after his biological mother noticed he was limping.
“The key to this would be that there were no obvious bruises,” said Banks.
The jury heard testimony on Tuesday 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. It was her first official day working by herself.
“She noticed that Dakota seemed lifeless,” said Banks. “She asked them what was the matter with him and Eugenia told her he had been sick and would take him to the doctor if he didn’t get better.”
Jurors also heard testimony on Tuesday from social workers Amanda Bolling, Georgia Kincer, and Michelle Frazier.
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 Tuesday that she and Amanda Bolling also stopped by the Allen home on March 27, 2003.
Hogg, then a newly-trained volunteer eager to be a victim’s advocate for children in foster care, 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.
During Allen’s long trial in Whitesburg in 2006, jurors ultimately agreed with prosecutors that Dakota, a child small for his age who had been diagnosed with failure to thrive, died of injuries he suff ered after Allen used physical force while attempting to get Dakota to be quiet while Allen was watching an NCAA Tournament basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and Wisconsin.
Emergency medical workers who tried to revive Dakota, including nurses at the Whitesburg hospital, said the injuries that killed the baby could not have been caused by Dakota’s young siblings or another foster child, as Allen had claimed during the 2006 trial. State medical examiners also testified in 2006 that the injuries which killed Dakota were too severe to have been caused by a child.
In granting the second trial for Allen, the Supreme Court held that Letcher Circuit Judge Sam Wright erred when he allowed into evidence the recordings of two phone calls made to E-911 officials after Dakota had already been pronounced dead at the hospital.
In one of the calls, a nurse who tried to revive the baby could be heard telling the 911 operator that Allen’s story about what happened to Dakota did not “fit,” and that she thought the fatal injuries had to have been caused by an adult. The other call was made by an unidentified City of Whitesburg police officer who told the 911 operator that “it was the foster parents” who caused Dakota’s death and asked that a Kentucky State Police detective be sent to open a murder investigation.
“Here, the trial court failed to recognize when the calls to 911 ceased to address an ongoing emergency situation, and instead became testimonial statements,” the court wrote in its majority opinion. “The phone call by the police officer clearly goes beyond the intent of what the 911 line is to be used for, namely for reporting emergency situations, and segues into testimonial speculation concerning culpability.”
Jeff rey Allen is being defended by Whitesburg attorney James W. Craft II.