[Note: all references to the child’s name have been abbreviated to his initial, even though attorneys referred to him by his name in full.]
Guilty on all counts.
The jury’s verdict after barely 70 minutes of deliberations late this afternoon came like hammer blows against 29-year-old Deviaun Toler, like intentional blows against the man who’d been accused, and was now found guilty, of brutalizing his 20-month-old son enough that it could amount to torture, and then LOL’ing about it.
“I’m sad. I miss Titan,” the child’s mother had texted him after Toler had finally taken his son to the hospital, when he’d texted her asking for his Medicaid information. (Toler and the mother had split before TT’s birth.)
“LOL,” he texted back. “I bet you won’t say that when you get him back. Imma be happy to give him to you.” The man who described himself as “not upset but passionate” when he beat his son has since lost his parental rights. The jury did not get to know that. This evening, after being out on bail in the three and a half years since he was charged, Toler lost his freedom.
On the count of aggravated child abuse for the skull fracture, a first degree felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years: guilty.
On the count of neglect of a child causing great harm, for neglecting to take the child to the hospital for weeks after the burn to his arm, a second degree felony that carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years: guilty.
On the count of aggravated child abuse for the burn, another first degree felony, another 30 years: guilty.
On the county of felony child abuse, for the numerous beatings the child endured, and to which Toler confessed, calling it discipline: guilty. That last is a third-degree felony with up to five years in prison.
Toler, unemotional, was immediately handcuffed when the clerk read the verdict, fingerprinted and sent back to the Flagler County jail, his bond revoked. Three family members sat in the bench behind him. One of them sobbed. He faces up to 80 years in prison when Circuit Judge Terence Perkins sentences him on Jan. 7 at 1:30 p.m., though the actual sentence is not likely to be that high. This is Toler’s first conviction. The sentences may be imposed concurrently, and combine prison time with probation.
There was a recurring dichotomy screen-splitting Toler’s trial over the past four days, after a full day of jury selection.
On one hand it was a trial of convoluted (a word a juror was heard using in the parking lot after the trial), contradictory, obscure and often impenetrable medical testimony about hemorrhages and damaged retinas and brain bleeds and torn ligaments and burns and peeling skin and discolored pigmentation and whipping marks and loop marks and strokes and skull fractures and seizures, all of it described with technical granularity by neurologists, ophthalmologists, radiologists, surgeons, and even a physicists–as in an academic who studies biomechanics, including the science of falling objects.
On the other hand, there was TT. He was no object. He was the boy to whom all those terms related, the 20 or 21 months old about whom all those experts and doctors were talking, he was the child victim of a series of horrific events: a grave burn to his arm, a skull fracture, seizures, and a degradation approaching death but for a surgical intervention. He is 5 now. But of course he never testified. Not directly.
In this trial, as Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark constructed it, TT’s body became its own plaintive testimony as it appeared in the courtroom’s giant screens in picture after picture of markings and lacerations of whippings with metal-buckled belts and switches–the abuser’s conscience-salving euphemism for what is more accurately termed a club or baton–and who knows what else.The jury heard all the professionals’ complicated testimonies, which for Toler’s defense was his only chance as defense attorney John Hager tried to muddy the doctors’ certainties about the origins of the skull fracture or the burn. He was able to construct a fair share of contradictions, to have one doctor say that operating on TT’s hemorrhage was a “judgment call” that led to an unnecessary surgery, though that doctor was an outlier. Hager kept repeating that there were no admissions to the beatings, no witnesses to the beatings, either, no witnesses to the burning, no witnesses to anything that would have caused the skull fracture, which he (and Toler) attributed to falls from the crib, or the bed. But repeating again and again that there were no witnesses to anything rural could not erase the prosecutor’s ability, at the click of a key on her computer, to bring up images of brutality, or at least of what most of the prosecution’s witness attributed to the euphemism for child brutality: “abusive head trauma.”
So the jury would look at the many pictures of TT in his hospital bed, TT–that child not yet 2 years old–with breathing tubes and feeding tubes and IVs, and images of his MRI’d skull, its fracture descending down one side, right above where his father, Deviaun Toler, sat at the defendant’s table. Toler seemed either to look up at the screen or past it. It was never clear. Toler sat with his back mostly to the jury for long portions of the trial, which did not help him.
TT’s first name, unreproduced here for his privacy, is from Greek mythology, representing a family of giants, the name itself meaning strength and greatness. He may yet get there. His survival certainly suggests he is living up to the name. As Clark put up pictures of the child on the courtroom’s screens, even when the MRI of his his skull fracture was shown, TT in his tininess, TT in the greatness of his resilience, looked like the bigger man as his ex-father sat and watched: TT, the little man beaten because he wouldn’t sit still and watch TV, the little man who had the temerity to go into the pantry, triggering his father’s wrath.
Toler was living with his girlfriend and family members at 32 Westfield Lane in Palm Coast the night he finally took his child to the hospital, on February 14, 2018. “On that day, TT was dying,” Clark told the jury in her closing arguments. He was lethargic, seizing, and had a skull fracture. He’d been with his father for several weeks, away from is biological mother, who had been trying for weeks to get him back. AdventHealth Palm Coast transferred the child to Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, where the child deteriorated before surgery to relieve hemorrhaging in his skull pulled him back from the brink. He would stay in the hospital three weeks.
His biological mother has not been a better parent: she lost her parental rights, too, but not over abuse. Over drug use. The jury heard that detail on Wednesday, though it was not centrally relevant to Toler’s trial.
TT’s mother had allowed Toler to take him for a few days after the new year in 2018. It was supposed to be just for a few days. It stretched to several weeks, against the mother’s will. About three weeks before he was hospitalized, TT suffered the burn to his arm. A burn Toler left untreated but through home remedies, though doctors said it would have required him to be taken to a burn unit: the skin peeled off, it had been so severe.
Clark described “the evolution of a lie,” how Toler told the Department of Children and Families investigator that TT had tipped over a pot of boiling water on himself. The investigator asked Toler to show her the pot. Toler did so, though the whole pot story was a fabrication that Toler himself would drop soon. “Look at the ease with which he tells it,” Clark said of the lie. “And he’s putting blame on everyone but him.” It was all TT’s fault. The 20-month-old’s fault.
He told the lie even though he knew that doctors had already begun to question the pot story, because of the burn pattern. Toler then admitted to lying. He said he was bathing his son in the tub, that he’d had to boil water because the warm water in the house had run out, and he’d poured the water in the tub–at one end of the tub, not where TT was sitting. He then used a washcloth, at first saying he didn’t dip the washcloth in the water, then saying he did, causing the scalding water to scald his son. If that was the case of course, Toler himself would have also been burned. He was not. Somehow, only the child was.
The child was not immediately taken to the hospital. “This is something little TT has been suffering with for three weeks,” Clark said, before doctors saw it. The burn had suppurated. When burns do so, they cause immense suffering. TT “would have been inconsolable,” Clark said. Toler downplayed the severity of the burn and rationalized why he did not take the child to the hospital. But the reason Toler didn’t do so was because TT was covered in whipping marks. “He did not want to be questioned about what was going on in his own home,” Clark said. “We have TT’s blood on a belt buckle from a 20 month old being whipped repeatedly by a belt.”
Testimony today included that of Toler’s own mother, who said she had been whipped as a child, and that Toler had been whipped. Hager referred to that, only for Clark to remind the jury: “That’s not the standard. The standard is whether or not it’s reasonable.” Florida law, like the law in 49 other states, still permits corporal punishment (it’s been outlawed in over 50 countries) but the punishment must be “reasonable,” not cruel and must not inflict harm.
The skull fracture was a separate matter. Toler and his family argued that it was the result of TT falling from his crib or playpen or the bed (that story changed as well). So it was left to a duel of doctors to each separately argue before jurors one position or another, the entirety of the state’s witnesses saying the likelihood of a skull fracture from a fall of that short distance being very small, and the defense’s two expert witnesses arguing the opposite, but not nearly as forcefully or decisively as would have been necessary to grab the jury’s attention. One of the witnesses was the biomechanical engineer, whose pages of formulas he devised to conclude that TT might have struck the floor with enough force froma fall meant nothing to the jury, and looked like a smokescreen in numbers when flashed on the overhead screens.
The defense’s other expert witness was Jonathan Scheller, a pediatric neurologist at the University of Illinois and a frequent flyer on the expert-witness circuit on behalf of defense attorneys defending against accusations of head trauma. Scheller said he’d testified in some 200 such cases. Scheller sought to discredit the claim of a brain bleed in TT, saying a stroke was the likelier explanation, and that surgical intervention was not necessary. He did not think the child had suffered abusive head trauma (and challenged the terminology). Clark then listed an innumerable number of professional associations that disagreed with him, making him look like the equivalent of a climate-change denier in the face of the latest report by a consensus of thousands of scientists.
“What happened to TT was not good. Not good whatsoever,” Hager argued to the jury before going through a bullet-point like list of statements underscoring contradictions and inconsistencies, usually the friend of the savvy investigator. But in the end it wasn’t just the images of TT that doomed the defense’s case. It wasn’t that dichotomy between the visceral reaction to pictures of the child in his hospital room as opposed to the technical language. It was the evidence, which the pictures merely illustrated. The evidence that Toler himself shepherded along in his various attempts to obfuscate it. There was his detachment. “There was really no negative emotion or sadness or anything like that,” Nicole Quintieri, the detective who investigated the case, testified about Toler’s demeanor as she asked him about his son, when his son was in the hospital.
TT may never know the man who had been his father, though he bears his marks: he has been permanently disfigured. As he grows he is bound to ask the same question that was often asked during this five-day trial: how did this happen, and the question more pertinent to Toler, if he ever gets to ask it: how could this happen?