CHARLESTON -- Faced with conflicting evidence about what caused Piersen Eaker's injuries, a jury Thursday found Patricia Brant not guilty of charges accusing her of injuring the boy at the Charleston day care she operated.
After lengthy deliberations that took part of two days, the jurors apparently found enough doubt in the prosecution's contentions that the 22-month-old boy's injuries could only have been caused by being shaken.
Brant continually denied harming the boy and said she believes he fell while trying to climb out of a play pen in which she left him on the day he was injured, Feb. 14, 2014.
During police questioning and in her own testimony at the trial, Brant said she returned from using the bathroom to find Piersen on the floor, unresponsive and gasping for breath.
However, she was arrested the following day on charges of aggravated battery of a child.
That resulted because, according trial evidence, doctors who treated Piersen said his injuries were too serious to be from a fall and had to be from being shaken by an adult. They said Piersen will suffer permanent disabilities because of the injuries.
On Thursday, Brant and several of her family members and supporters in the court audience began crying when Circuit Judge Teresa Righter announced the jury's verdict.
Candis Eaker, Piersen's mother, and others were also in the courtroom and became emotional, and they soon left after hearing the verdict.
The jury reached its verdict after about 11 hours of deliberations, six hours Wednesday afternoon and evening and then five hours after they returned to court Thursday. It was one of the longest jury deliberations for a criminal trial in Coles County in several years.
In addition to hearing Brant deny that she hurt Piersen, the jury also heard from two experts who called into question whether shaking was the only way he could have been injured.
In contrast, the pathologist and bio-mechanical engineer who testified said a fall not only could have caused the injuries but actually was a more-likely cause than shaking.
During his closing remarks to the jury on Wednesday, lead defense attorney Todd Reardon urged the jurors not to "ignore the science" behind the experts' testimony.
Experiments the bio-mechanical engineer conducted, specifically involving children falling from play pens, showed such a fall could create enough force to result in the types of injuries Piersen received, Reardon noted.
"They want you to say Piersen is different than physics," he said of the prosecution's contentions. "He is not."
Reardon also noted that the pathologist concluded that the bleeding and other damage in Piersen's brain likely came from a fall.
The doctor discounted other testimony that said the number and distribution of Piersen's retinal hemorrhages were a tell-tale sign of shaking and instead said they were caused by brain swelling, Reardon told the jury.
Brant's account that she found Piersen after he was injured also showed she was believable, Reardon also said.
"If she was going to lie to you, would she say she saw it?" he said.
Much of the prosecution's case centered on testimony from a child abuse specialist, a pediatrician and ophthalmologist who treated Piersen while he was at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.
State's Attorney Brian Bower said those doctors -- unlike the defense's experts, who relied on medical reports -- were better able to explain the reason for Piersen's injuries.
The boy's injuries, especially the retinal hemorrhages, "rule out a fall," Bower said. He added that the Carle physicians all concluded that shaking "can result in the specific injuries of Piersen Eaker."
Bower also said it was "uncontroverted" that Brant was the only adult at the day care at the time Piersen was injured.
With the acquittal, Brant avoided a conviction that would have required that she been sentenced to prison for a term of six to 30 years.