Arundel judge issues a not-guilty verdict in the killing of baby State failed to prove case against man, he says

October 17, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Anne Arundel County Circuit judge ended the baby-killing trial of Zenon Cantu Jr. yesterday by saying the state failed to prove its case.

The evidence would not allow him to find Cantu guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, said Judge Robert H. Heller Jr. "I cannot convict Mr. Cantu of suspicions I hold against him on my gut feelings."

Cantu, 26, of Pasadena was charged with second-degree murder and two related counts in the death of Nicholas R. Alford, 17 months, whose parents found him dead in his crib at 9: 30 a.m. Jan. 14 in their Crofton home. The child was struck twice in the back of the head, his skull fractured.

Eight county sheriff's deputies were stationed around the small courtroom as Heller announced his verdict, reflecting concern about the vitriol between the Cantu and Alford camps that erupted in ugly words in the courthouse hallway during the trial.

"He didn't say he wasn't guilty," Karla Alford, the baby's mother, called out as she was led sobbing from the courtroom with her husband, Scott, by her side.

As his mother and sisters hugged, Cantu shook the hand of defense lawyer T. Joseph Touhey, who had argued last week that any of several people -- the parents included -- could have delivered the fatal blows. Cantu declined to comment.

"In 33 years, it's the worst case I've had," Touhey said. "It's a sad case -- the trouble is it's still not resolved."

Assistant State's Attorney Thomas J. Pryal said: "I felt like we did everything we could with the evidence in the case. As far as I am concerned, this case is over. There are no other suspects in this case."

In a 45-minute statement, Heller said his ruling did not mean that he believed Cantu was not responsible for the crime or that either parent was the killer. It meant that after he reviewed the six-day trial, he concluded only that the state did not prove Cantu was the killer.

"It isn't a matter of what you think," Touhey said. "It is a matter of what you prove."

Unanswered was what happened to the nearly 8 ounces of milk in Nicholas' bottle.

Around 8 p.m. Jan. 13, Cantu, fiance of the Alfords' nanny, had taken a full bottle upstairs to Nicholas. Pryal argued that Cantu struck the baby then, killing him.

Medical experts agreed that the blows would have left Nicholas unconscious, and he could not have drunk the milk. But the bottle was almost empty when Nicholas' body was discovered the next morning. And witnesses gave conflicting and unclear testimony about whether Nicholas was still crying after Cantu came downstairs.

No proof was found that the contents leaked onto the bedclothes overnight, as Pryal suggested, although a trace of milk was found on a blanket. The autopsy was inconclusive on whether the baby drank from the bottle.

Also, Nicholas ate dinner between 6 p.m. and 6: 30 p.m. Dr. David Fowler, who performed the autopsy, said the baby probably was struck no later than 9: 30 p.m. and likely earlier, based on the stage of digestion of the ham slices in his stomach. VTC But Dr. John Adams, a former medical examiner who was a defense witness, testified that he believed the child probably was struck after 9: 30 p.m., based largely on dinner digestion.

Cantu and his fiance, Maria Elisa Bilbo-Sacristan, left for the night at 8: 30 p.m., soon after the Alfords arrived home.

Touhey said that while he was not pointing fingers, Cantu was hardly the only person with Nicholas from his bedtime through the middle of the night, though Pryal argued the parents were with the older two children and on the telephone before going to bed early.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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