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Accused of manslaughter, man found only negligent

His failure to seek medical help for a physically abused 3-year-old does not justify conviction on the more serious charge, a jury decides.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 6, 2002


TAMPA -- As 3-year-old Jacob Neace was slowly dying on Oct. 27, 2000, his intestine ruptured from a punch or kick to the abdomen. James Jackson York watched the boy vomiting throughout the day and saw his stomach turn "hard as a banjo string."

York, then the live-in boyfriend of the boy's mother, didn't take the boy to St. Joseph's Hospital, though it was slightly more than a mile away. York said he urged Jacob's mother to get a doctor, but when she refused, he left to scout fishing sites.

It wasn't until about 8 p.m. that York tried calling 911. By then, the boy had stopped breathing. He was pronounced dead within the hour.

On Wednesday, a jury of five men and one women rejected the state attorney's claim that the 30-year-old York is guilty of aggravated manslaughter for failing to help the boy, a charge that could have brought him 30 years in prison.

Instead, the jury found him guilty of the lesser offense of culpable negligence, a misdemeanor.

Saying York's behavior "shocks the conscience of the court," Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe imposed the stiffest sentence available: a year in county jail.

"This guy dodged a bullet," defense attorney Harvey Hyman said of York. "Obviously, I'm incredibly relieved that he's not going to prison. Any attorney would consider this a victory."

While York was originally charged with second-degree murder on the theory that he inflicted the fatal blow to the boy, the state was ultimately unable to pinpoint when the violence occurred. Defense experts said it could have been days before the death.

With the timeline in dispute, prosecutor Art McNeil said he was unable to prove whether it was York or the boy's mother, Roxanne Polkowski, who struck him.

But during the three-day trial this week, McNeil told the jury that York -- who took care of the boy while the mother was at work -- should have done more to help him.

"A child's life depended on this defendant. He failed the child," McNeil said. He argued that York knew the child was in distress because he called Polkowski at work on the afternoon of Oct. 27 to tell her the boy needed medical help.

Testifying Wednesday, York said the boy "seemed fine besides the vomiting" for most of the day. When he told Polkowski the boy needed help, he said, she refused because she worried it would bring the attention of the Department of Children and Families. York said he attributed the boy's discomfort to a stomach virus or to drinking a can of Mountain Dew.

York said he finally decided to summon help when he noticed the boy was "real pale and bloated-looking" in the bathtub.

York acknowledged that if the boy had been his own biological child, he would have found him a doctor sooner.

"Knowing that the mother wouldn't do anything, he still had an obligation to summon assistance," McNeil told the jury. "A baby died because of his failure."

Hyman, the defense lawyer, said York was just a "glorified babysitter" and had no responsibility to get help for the child after the mother came on the scene, about 4:30 p.m.

"As soon as he realized something was wrong, he called the responsible parent," Hyman said. If anyone is to blame, he said, "the fault lies with her."

Polkowski will stand trial for aggravated manslaughter in July.

When authorities examined the boy's body, they found bruises on his head, face, hip and penis. York said the boy had received them by falling and other accidents. York said the boy got the genital bruise because a toilet lid fell on him while he was urinating.

The jury deliberated a little more than an hour before finding York guilty of the misdemeanor.

-- Christopher Goffard can be reached at 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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