DAYTONA BEACH — A man accused of beating and punishing his girlfriend’s 4-year-old son to death was spared a possible death sentence on Thursday when a jury found him guilty of a lesser charge than first-degree felony murder.
The panel of nine women and three men deliberated for 12 hours on Wednesday before being sequestered overnight in a hotel. Then at 10:14 a.m., 24 hours after they started, Joe McCaskell, who was charged with first-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of 4-year-old Ke’Andre Coleman, was found guilty of third-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse.
That means McCaskell will not face a possible death sentence in Ke’Andre’s killing. It was either that or a mandatory life in prison without parole had he been found guilty of first-degree murder.
McCaskell will instead face up to 15 years in prison on the third-degree felony murder and up to 30 years on the aggravated child abuse. Circuit Judge Matt Foxman has yet to set a sentencing date.
“We are disappointed that it’s not first-degree murder but we respect the jury’s decision,” said prosecutor Heatha Trigones.
McCaskell did not show any reaction to the verdict when it was announced. But one of his attorneys, Gonzalo Andux, moved his head back and briefly looked at the ceiling.
“The verdict was bittersweet,” Andux said later outside the courthouse. “Our client has been saying he’s not guilty the whole time, and that’s what we tried to portray to the jury but at least this verdict is not first-degree and we don’t have to deal with the death penalty.”
McCaskell will return to the Volusia County Branch Jail where he has been held for five years awaiting the trial.
And still to be tried in the case is McCaskell’s ex-girlfriend, Mikkia Shardae Lewis, 27, who was Ke’Andre’s mother. She is also charged with first-degree felony murder and aggravated child abuse. The state is also seeking the death penalty against Lewis, remains jailed without bail.
The verdict against McCaskell did not come easily. In addition to their 12 hours of deliberations, while sequestered the jurors were not allowed to take their cellphones and their hotel rooms were stripped of television sets. Both to avoid having them exposed to news about the case.
Then they boarded two vans under escort by deputies to the hotel.
It appears to be the first time since 2001 that jurors were sequestered during a trial in Volusia County. Jurors were also sequestered during deliberations in the Deltona massacre case but that trial was moved to St. Augustine. No jury has been sequestered in Flagler County for at least the past 30 years, the Flagler County Clerk of Court Tom Bexley wrote in an email.
The jurors in the McCaskell case were welcomed back to the courtroom just after 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
“I’ve been informed by the Sheriff’s Office that my future as a travel agent does not look bright,” Foxman told the jury eliciting some chuckles.
Then he sent them back to the jury room. The jurors knocked on the door at one point asking for water and at another point for dry erase markers. Then came the guilty verdicts.
At 10:14 a.m. someone in the jury room yelled “Hallelujah.” That was followed four minutes later by a knock on the door. The jury had reached its verdict.
Ke’Andre Coleman was attending Head Start and was described by instructors during the trial as on level with other kids his age.
Ke’Andre had been excited to go on a field trip with Head Start to the zoo in Sanford on April 12, 2013. But he didn’t go on the field trip. Instead his mother, who was also supposed to go on the trip, kept him home.
McCaskell had just gotten a job with a landscaping company about a week earlier. But he told investigators it was raining in Port Orange so he, too, stayed home.
That Friday began a series of beatings and severe positional punishment that continued through the weekend and led to the child’s death, according to prosecutors Tammy Jaques and Trigones.
Prosecutors said Ke’Andre was beaten with shoes and belts.
McCaskell called 9-1-1 about 1 a.m. on April 15, 2013, to report that the child was not breathing.
When South Daytona police arrived they found Ke’Andre’s bruised body in a back bedroom of the apartment at 1920 S. Palmetto Ave. A paramedic testified the boy was not breathing and his arms were stiff, showing the child was already in rigor mortis.
Jaques said during closing arguments that showed Ke’Andre had been dead for at least two hours before McCaskell called 9-1-1.
She said that the beatings and the forced positions led to the boy’s body breaking down, releasing toxins into the blood, which led to his death.
Kanora Bush testified she saw Ke’Andre bent over in a toe touch position for the three to five minutes she was at the door talking to Lewis about a dresser.
The woman’s 10-year-old son testified he was watching through a window as Ke’Andre was on the all fours on the floor while McCaskell and Lewis beat him. McCaskell used a cord while Lewis used a belt, he said.
Jaques showed jurors pictures of Ke’Andre as his body lay on a table at the morgue. His buttocks were badly bruised. One appeared to have a raw red abrasion. Prosecutors said one of his nipples had been nearly gouged off.
In the video recording, McCaskell tells investigators that he only spanked the child.
“I mean I done popped him on his butt if she gave me permission to,” McCaskell said and slapped the table several times to demonstrate.
McCaskell said he did not beat his own five children — four living with their mother in Georgia and a fifth in Tallahassee with a mother there.
He said that Lewis took the child into the room to punish him but he did not go in there when the door was closed.
He then said in the video that he did not believe the boy’s mother would harm the child, although he told investigators that if he found out she did, he would tell them.
McCaskell told them that the child was not learning his colors and was misbehaving at school, so he suggested that Lewis punish him by making him stand in the corner with his arms raised in the air.
After interviewing McCaskell, investigators left him alone with Lewis in the interview room. The video shows McCaskell telling Lewis that investigators were trying to get him to blame her. She told him that investigators were trying to turn her on him.
McCaskell refers to Lewis as “Kia.”
“God took him from you, Kia,” McCaskell tells her.