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Defense attorney Lloyd Levitt, right, and prosecutor Leslie Longshore, left, talk with Judge Don Poole during jury selection in the trial of Jacqueline Escareno on Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Escareno is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2014 drug-overdose death of toddler Demarcus Bryant, who had a prescription pain patch on his back.
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Jacqueline Escareno listens during jury selection as her trial begins in the courtroom of Judge Don Poole on Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Escareno is charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2014 drug-overdose death of toddler Demarcus Bryant, who had a prescription pain patch on his back.

Opening arguments kicked off Tuesday in a criminally negligent homicide case that originated March 22, 2014, when authorities discovered Demarcus Bryant in his playpen deceased.

Authorities said the 23-month-old died as a result of a 25-microgram fentanyl patch on his right midback while he was under the care of Jaqueline Escareno, his aunt. The question jurors now have to decide is whether Escareno, 52, was aware of the "substantial and unjustifiable risk" she put Demarcus through.

"This is a case that unfolds, kind of out of order," prosecutor Leslie Longshore told jurors, "and so you have to put it together piece by piece. But if you stick with us and listen to the proof, I feel confident that you will find Ms. Escareno is guilty."

During opening statements in Criminal Court Judge Don Poole's courtroom, Longshore recounted the morning of March 22, when Sarah Bryant, Demarcus' mother, awoke groggy from a surgery she'd had the day before.

"She's coming off the anaesthesia," Longshore said. "And her children are staying with Aunt Jackie. So she calls. And she calls again. And she still doesn't get her. And she gets more apprehensive."

And when she finally reached Escareno, Longshore said, she heard the news: "Demarcus is gone." Two months later, Escareno was charged with criminally negligent homicide.

Longshore said the prosecution centers around testimony from Bryant, her fiance, the responding officers and medical professionals.

Lloyd Levitt, the woman's attorney, told jurors they needed to understand Escareno's backstory. In 2008, while working at a local medical center, Escareno tried to catch a falling patient. Instead she collided with a wheelchair and tore a disc in her back. After years of unsuccessful care, a doctor placed Escareno on fentanyl patches in 2013, which slowly release medication to alleviate the pain.

"She was having difficulty getting them to stay on her body," Levitt said. "Eventually she finds the best place to place it is on her arm."

Escareno watched Demarcus and his then 4-year-old sister on a semi-regular basis, Levitt said. So on March 21, when Sarah Bryant underwent surgery, it wasn't unusual that Escareno agreed to watch Demarcus, who was recovering from an infection on his private parts.

Levitt said Escareno gave Demarcus and his sister a bath.

"She had this patch on," he said. "She grabbed the child to take him out of the bath tub. And that's when we believe the patch transferred onto his back. She dries him off, puts his shirt on, and has no earthly idea the patch is on his back."

Because Demarcus was being hyperactive, Escareno then moved him into a playpen in her room, Levitt said. The next morning, when she tried to wake Demarcus, he was cold and stiff and she knew the worst.

"What motive would she have to kill this child?" Levitt asked, "a child she's taken care of for 2 to 4 years?"

The trial continues today in Judge Poole's courtroom at 9 a.m.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow @zackpeterson918.

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