Fernando Cantu Jr. wiped away a tear as he listened to his sister testify on his behalf Friday morning in 271st District Court.
“He’s a wonderful uncle,” Yadira Lara, Cantu’s sister, said through sobs. “My son asks for him every day.”
One by one, family members and friends of Cantu took their turn on the witness stand during the punishment phase of Cantu’s trial for injury to a child.
A day earlier, Cantu had been found guilty of negligent injury to a child causing bodily injury, a state jail felony. Their testimony would help the jury decide what kind of punishment he would receive – anything from probation to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In total, 16 friends and family testified on behalf of Cantu, describing him as friendly, honest, a hard worker, polite and a person who would go out of his way to help people. Even the probation officer who made sure he abided by the terms of his bond testified that he never had any problems with Cantu.
The only conviction the 33-year-old Bridgeport resident had received in his life had come the previous day.
After 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury recommended the minimum of 180 days in jail and that he be given community service rather than time behind bars. Moments later, visiting Judge Elizabeth Berry sentenced Cantu to two years of probation. If he violates the terms, he will have to serve the entire 180-day sentence.
CRIME WAS THREE YEARS AGO
The incident that brought Cantu and a courtroom filled with family and friends to that moment happened in June 1, 2010. Cantu was arrested and later indicted for injury to a child with intent to cause serious bodily injury, a first-degree felony.
Prosecutors said Cantu became frustrated with 4 -month-old Gabrial Biediger after Gabrial’s mother had left her son in his care for a few minutes. Assistant District Attorney Jay Lapham said Cantu squeezed the child’s head with such force that it caused blood vessels to burst and resulted in bleeding around the child’s brain.
Cantu’s attorney, Bill Ray of Fort Worth, said there was insufficient evidence to tie his client to the crime. He said in his opening statement that an initial diagnosis at Wise Regional Health System that the child had a skull fracture, later proven to be false, “became the ball rolling down the hill of ‘This is child abuse, not the result of an accident.’”
Ray indicated the child could have been injured elsewhere, possibly in a minor car accident a week earlier when the child’s mother, Kaela, had ran off the road into a ditch. She testified that her child and another child in the car were not injured in the wreck.
One of the key pieces of evidence was a statement signed by Cantu that he had “squeezed” Gabrial’s head about one-and-a-half minutes before the child went limp in his mother’s arms. This statement was given to polygraph examiner Clayton Wood following an interview and a polygraph exam with Cantu a few days after the incident.
Ray argued that Cantu has trouble reading and understanding other people at times and did not know that he was admitting to causing the child’s injuries when he signed the statement.
Ray also argued that the injury was not bad enough to be considered “serious bodily injury.” But Jamye Coffman, director of the medical care team at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, said a CT scan of Gabrial’s head showed fresh blood around the brain that was causing potential pressure on the brain. She testified that about an ounce of blood was drained from the child’s head.
Cantu testified that Kaela had left their apartment in Decatur to pawn some tools for money to buy groceries, and he was watching Gabrial, who was in an infant sit on the floor. Cantu said he went to the bathroom and heard Gabrial begin crying loudly. He said that about that time he heard Kaela knocking at the door and let her in. Kaela picked up her baby and held him, and he calmed down just before he went limp, indicating something was wrong and leading to a trip to Wise Regional Health System. The child was then flown to Cook Children’s Hospital.
During cross-examination, Cantu said Kaela was in the room when he squeezed Gabrial’s head, contradicting what he had said in the interview with Wood. The jury was shown the video of that interview in court, and during deliberations, they asked to review a portion of that tape again.
The jury had the option of finding Cantu not guilty or guilty of one of six different charges, ranging from the first-degree felony charge named in his indictment to the state jail felony charge for which he was eventually convicted. It took the jury about five hours to reach their decision.
Following the outpouring of support from friends and families who testified to Cantu’s character, Cantu himself was the last witness called during the punishment phase of the trial. “Do you believe good people do bad things?” Lapham asked Cantu.
“They make mistakes,” Cantu replied.
“Did you make a mistake?” Lapham asked.
“Yes,” Cantu said.
Assistant District Attorney Tim Cole assisted Lapham with prosecuting the case.