A Blairsville-area man reached a plea agreement Monday with Indiana County prosecutors and will face up to 40 years in prison for fatally injuring his 22-month-old stepson last year.
Juan Campbell, 28, pleaded guilty in Indiana County Court to one count of third-degree murder for the death of Malachi Patterson, avoiding a trial that had been scheduled for late February.
District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said the plea deal — at least the fifth in a homicide case in Indiana County in less than two years — was sudden but not a surprise.
“With the evidence that we had … I’m not surprised that he was willing to take this plea,” Dougherty said.
He said Campbell’s defense attorneys first raised the possibility last week.
“I told them that I would take no less than murder three. They came back last Friday, late in the day, and said he would take it and we scheduled it for Monday. It happened very quickly.”
Police charged that Campbell tried to stop the boy from whimpering early May 17 in their apartment along Susan Drive in Burrell Township. Campbell covered the boy’s mouth with his hand until he stopped breathing, then called 911 to report the boy was unresponsive.
After being rushed to Indiana Regional Medical Center and being transferred to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, tests showed the boy had no brain activity. He died when he was removed from life support two days later.
State police had filed assault charges against Campbell when Patterson first was hospitalized, then upgraded the charges to homicide after Malachi died.
Dougherty said the plea bargain brings the same outcome he would have expected in a jury trial. The additional charges — aggravated assault, child welfare endangerment and reckless endangerment — won’t be prosecuted, but were part of the same criminal act and would not have brought additional jail time if a jury had found him guilty.
“I thought from the very beginning that this was murder three,” Dougherty said. “With murder one, you’ve got to show premeditation, and I’m not sure we would ever have been able to show the level of premeditation that juries want, in this case.”
Dougherty said what Campbell did fit the definition of third-degree murder.
“It’s a murder with malice — reckless conduct that would lead a person to reasonably believe that death would occur, and that’s what we have here,” he said. “Placing a hand over a child’s mouth and smothering the child is an intentional act, but I don’t think it was premeditated.”
Malachi Patterson was in a body cast and recovering from a broken leg when he died.
At the time, the toddler’s mother, Jamie Campbell, was in Indiana Regional Medical Center, where she had given birth to another child, and Campbell was at home taking care of Malachi and his own 6-year-old son.
Juan Campbell told investigators that he put Malachi to bed on the evening of May 16 and later brought him to his own bedroom. He said he woke around 2 a.m. to use the bathroom and told police that Malachi rolled off the bed and hit his head on a nightstand, but the child was whimpering so he covered his mouth and nasal passages until he stopped.
When he realized Malachi was not breathing, he called Jamie Campbell at the hospital, then called 911.
Doctors found bruises on the boy’s face when he was taken to the hospital, but there was no suggestion that the injuries indicated any past abuse.
“Nobody could say that,” Dougherty said. “The bruises that we saw and that the doctors at Children’s Hospital saw were pretty consistent with a smothering.
“The autopsy came back and said this was a result of smothering.”
Dougherty said the boy’s parents, Jamie Campbell and Devon Bailey, supported the plea agreement.
Campbell is scheduled for sentencing April 11 before Judge William Martin.