No one could argue that Justin and Brittany Alston didn’t make unfathomable, grave mistakes when it came to the care of their son, but Hood County District Attorney Rob Christian saw it as far more than that. In his closing arguments to the jury Thursday in the couple’s injury to a child trial, he described it as callous criminal behavior against the most defenseless among us – an infant.
The six-man, six-woman jury saw it the same way.
Late Thursday afternoon, the Alstons each were sentenced to 60 years in prison by the jury in Judge Ralph Walton’s 355th Judicial District Court. The guilty verdict came in mid-morning, followed by the trial’s punishment phase later in the day.
Christian, who told the jury that the Alstons knowingly “neglected and starved their 8-month-old son up to the point of death” said the jury’s decision was the correct one.
“These two defendants were as callous as any defendants I’ve prosecuted,” said District Attorney Rob Christian, who had asked the jury to return with a sentence of life in prison. “To let that child suffer for 60 days and not do anything seems almost impossible.”
Punishment for the first-degree felony charge they faced ranges from five months of probation up to 99 years or life, plus a fine of up to $10,000. The jury had to sort through the legal issue of whether the Alstons acted “knowingly” to injure the child, or “recklessly,” a lesser offense.
Authorities learned on Dec. 9 that Riley had become severely emaciated – weighing only 9 pounds at 8 months of age – while living with his parents in their two-bedroom Sandy Beach subdivision mobile home southeast of Granbury.
Testimony indicated that a visitor to their home found Riley in a playpen where he slept in the parents’ bedroom, with dried urine, feces and vomit on his clothes and body.
While the jury made sure they will be paying a steep price for many years, their son is on the road to recovery from near death caused by their neglect in providing nutrition and urgently needed medical care.
The Alstons had insisted to investigators that Riley was unable to keep his food down when he was fed formula, and that they were in the process of seeking a new pediatrician.
An off-duty paramedic who saw Riley on the night of the arrests told the Alstons that the child might not survive more than about 48 hours if he didn’t receive immediate medical attention.
Some testimony in the three-day trial seemed to indicate that Riley’s alarming condition may have been noticeable for about two months before the Alstons were arrested on the charge of felony injury to a child with serious bodily injury.
Testimony showed they had taken Riley to a local pediatrician at least twice while he was still a newborn. But after missing a couple of appointments, they failed to respond to a letter and then stopped going altogether, the physician testified.
Both parents were unemployed at the time of their arrest, and claimed they couldn’t even afford to buy gas to drive to a doctor’s office. Brittany, who has two healthy young children fathered by another man who lived elsewhere, revealed that “Justin’s grandma told us she was not going to be able to help us out (financially) much longer.”
However, they had access to Medicaid and WIC to pay for medical care Riley needed, Christian informed the jury.
RILEY IN CRISIS
Magon Rutledge was 17 on the night the Alstons were arrested, visiting their home on Rance Drive for a get-together with friends. She said she was only slightly acquainted with the Alstons, who lived nearby.
Magon said she asked to see Baby Riley after hearing strange noises from the bedroom where he was being kept in a playpen.
“It wasn’t like a normal baby cry,” she testified.
She said the conditions were indescribable, and Riley’s crib had a filthy, brown nasty mess over it.
“It enraged me,” Magon said. “It smelled like dead animals. I peeled him up out of his crib. It was like this slimy mix. It was like he didn’t have the strength to cry. I started to unbutton his onesy and the full effect of his condition hit me. I thought he was going to die.”
Magon instructed a 15-year-old boy who she arrived with at the home to call his father, Paul Fuller. He was the paramedic who told the Alstons something had to be done to save Riley’s life.
When Fuller insisted that Riley be taken to the emergency room or else he would call the Hood County Sheriff’s Office, “They both freaked – especially Justin,” Fuller said. “He said he was going to take Riley and disappear and nobody would see him again. I ended up taking him. Justin told me, ‘Just take him. You can have him. You take him to the hospital’.”
Magon, who attended the trial with her mother, said, “I was hoping for something like (60 years), but I wasn’t expecting it. I was shocked, but I was also really happy.
“There are just some evil people in the world and there’s no explanation for what they did.”
The get-together at the Alston residence had turned out to be more of an impromptu party featuring alcohol even though most of those attending were under the legal drinking age, according to testimony. But Magon and Fuller’s son stepped up anyway.
Magon, now an 18-year-old senior at Granbury High School, was hailed as a hero by Sheriff Roger Deeds and others after news broke of Riley’s rescue. She got a verbal reminder of that fact – plus a congratulatory hug – from one of the last jurors to leave the courthouse.
“We were the voice of Riley, and the voice of our justice system,” said that 35-year-old male juror, who would identify himself only as Michael. “We wanted to see to it that Riley would never have to go through that again.”
Photos of Riley’s horrifically thin naked body seemed so gruesome and surreal that two of Justin’s relatives seemed to involuntarily recoil while on the witness stand when confronted with them.
Justin’s mother, Jennifer Ferriera, showed a look indicative of horror and disbelief when she saw the shocking image of her grandson. She turned away as she placed the back of her hand over her mouth.
After she had seen Riley’s photo, Christian asked Ferriera if she would trust her son around Riley, and her answer was, “Not alone.”
Christian noted, “It was a very difficult trial for the witnesses. I’m glad that it’s over and I’m glad that justice was done.”
Recent photos of Riley while he was in a foster home illustrated obvious improvement – with a more normal body weight plus a bright, plump face more indicative of a healthy child – now just over 19 months of age.
Dr. Kerri Sistrunk, trauma medical director at Lake Granbury Medical Center where Riley was first taken, said, “He did not cry any tears – one sign of dehydration. I was concerned that the child was developing kidney failure.
“It was something a concentration camp survivor would look like – skin and bones. “The body (was) essentially eating itself – wasting away.”
One of the pediatricians who treated Riley at Cook Children’s Medical Center, Dr. Jayme Coffman, said, “His brain was kind of shrunken,” but possible brain functions that may have been harmed “won’t be known for years.”
Coffman described Riley’s sunken facial features as being something called “old man look” because of his lack of fat. She noted that a callous on one of his fingers likely indicated that he had been sucking on it because his body yearned for food intake.
“His hands are red – I would assume from sucking on them,” Coffman said.
Robert Young, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office, was heard verbally pounding away at Justin when an audio recording of his interview from the night of their arrest was played.
“Even a bad father knows when to take his kid to the doctor,” Young said to Justin on the recording. “You still haven’t explained why you didn’t. I think the answer is, you wanted the kid to go away and die.”
Pam Walker, Justin’s defense attorney, told the jury that the Alstons didn’t realize the situation was dire, but she stated that they were “reckless, irresponsible, stupid and immature.”
When asked why she had not recently sought medical aid for Riley, Brittany said, “I’ve been so stressed. I have so many things that I need to be doing. I need to look for a job, and I’ve got to get my oil changed. I have to find him a doctor.”
Young told Justin during the interview he could write a statement. He replied, “Would it look bad if I didn’t?”
Christian said he couldn’t say the Alstons truly wanted Riley to die, but added, “I always thought they were waiting for him to die” so they could “throw him in the garbage.”
Ferriera testified she was about to gain temporary custody of Riley, but that has been delayed. His placement remains undecided, pending a final decision by Children’s Protective Services, Christian said.
Walker and attorney Cole Bryant, who represented Brittany, objected to showing several of Riley’s graphic photos showing his fragile condition to the jury. Bryant’s claim that they “might inflame the jury” was rejected by Walton at the onset of the trial.
“We’re not surprised, but disappointed,” Walker said of the sentence. “I felt like Rob Christian did an excellent job. It was a long, tiring trial. We’re all thrilled that Riley appears to be thriving.”
The Alstons could be eligible for parole at approximately age 51. Walton allowed county jail time served to count toward the 30 years they must serve before early release consideration.
Bryant agreed that they were disappointed with the sentences their clients received.
“We worked very hard on this case,” Bryant said. “We tried the best we could with the circumstances we had.”
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