Prosecutors are appealing a Rock Island County judge’s decision Wednesday to dismiss a child endangerment charge filed against a woman after her 10-month-old son burned to death in a vehicle fire Feb. 9, 2006.
A Rock Island County jury took just 30 minutes to find Cassandra Bacon, 37, guilty in January of leaving her son, George Bernauer III, in her vehicle with his two siblings, ages 5 and 3, while she went into the Rock Island Kmart to shop.
While Bacon was in the store, one of the children apparently started a fire with a lighter found on the floor. Her youngest son did not escape.
Judge Walter Braud said he agreed with a defense motion that argued the prosecution did not spell out what Bacon did wrong in the original charge. The motion was filed right before the trial began.
“This motion should have been handled in completeness before we ever started this trial,” Braud said before issuing his ruling.
Bacon was to be sentenced Wednesday and faced an extended prison term of 10 years, but the dismissal nullifies her conviction, unless the judge’s ruling is overturned by the appellate court.
During the hearing, the judge had his four-page ruling displayed on an overhead projector. Some Rock Island police detectives in the audience groaned upon seeing the last line, which stated the judge’s decision to dismiss the case.
“We respect the court system and the judge,” Assistant Rock Island County State’s Attorney Margaret Osborn said afterward. “Leaving the child unattended in a vehicle is a crime. We have charged people (in similar cases) when there have been no injuries.”
After the hearing, Bacon said she was somewhat relieved by the judge’s ruling but still anguishes over the loss of her son.
“I’m still going to suffer the rest of my life,” she said. “My son is gone. I have to hug a picture tonight. I am held accountable whether the judge says I’m guilty or not guilty.”
Bacon’s attorney Steve Hanna noted the Bacon refused to look at the images displayed on the overhead projector during the trial because many included scenes of her burned-out vehicle. She was still refusing to look during Wednesday’s hearing until he told her to look at the judge’s decision at the bottom of the last page.
“It’s about time we are able to live on with the rest of our lives,” Bacon said. In the future, “I will never, ever, leave my children unattended, ever.”
Hanna acknowledged that the public likely won’t understand the judge’s ruling or agree with it.
“Public opinion is pretty tough,” he said.
Braud acknowledged during hearings Monday and Wednesday that people want to hold someone accountable for George Bernauer’s death. He said it was his job under the law to review the motion as if a trial had never taken place.
“The information does not say how the defendant endangered the child other than leaving the child unattended,” he said. “The burden on me is heavy to scrutinize this complaint.”
Braud said the criminal information outlining what Bacon did wrong needed to include more specifics about where the crime took place, including that it was in a parking lot and for how long, be it five, 10 or 15 minutes. No definite amount of time was ever established at trial.
“We don’t know why leaving the children unattended is a crime,” Braud said. “Leaving your children unattended in a motor vehicle is not a crime. Everybody can and almost everybody does leave their children unattended in a vehicle all the time.”
Braud said that by not including more details, the information does not fully tell Bacon of her offense and leaves her open to the risk of double jeopardy — being prosecuted for the same crime twice — because the prosecution could later charge her for other specific acts stemming from the same alleged crime.
In his argument, Hanna told Braud the prosecution’s charge was too broad and vague. He said he doesn’t think the prosecution knew what direction to take the case until the trial was under way.
“The statute and the case law is clear,” he said. “You have to lay out the acts that occurred that constitute a crime. I wasn’t quite sure what to defend from the start.”
Osborn argued that the information was complete and followed the state statute.
“The act of leaving the children unattended is the violation,” she said, adding what happened afterward was proof of the violation. “The information apprised the defendant sufficiently of the charge against her.”
She noted Hanna never specified before the trial what she had failed to notify him of.
Osborn filed her appeal immediately after the judge issued his ruling. She doesn’t know how long it will take for the appellate court to reach a decision.
This is complete crap. This lady is complete trash. She got a lucky break. Even more sad is that she had another child since the incident. Seriously, sterilize her!