CLEARWATER - A 25-year-old Largo man accused of killing his infant son in 2011 was found guilty of manslaughter late Friday night.
After a weeklong trial capped by nearly eight hours of deliberation, the jury did not find Tracy Pethtel guilty of the original charges of first-degree murder but convicted him on the lesser manslaughter charge. His defense team plans an appeal.
Pethtel was watching the baby on May 28, 2011, while the baby's mother was at work for the evening. The two parents were not living together at the time. At some point, he later told authorities, the baby began to gasp.
After midnight, Pethtel and his roommate brought the child to Bardmoor Hospital. On the way, prosecutors said, the baby turned blue and stopped breathing. The infant was resuscitated and moved the following day to All Children's Hospital but died the next day.
An autopsy determined the cause of death was blunt force trauma, and after a nearly three-month investigation, Pethtel was charged with murder on Aug. 23, 2011.
In the days leading up to the death, the baby's mother said during testimony, Austin showed no signs of being sick.
"Happy, healthy, 10-week-old baby boy," said prosecutor Christie Ellis."Twenty-four hours later, that baby boy is brain dead. How does that happen?"
While the prosecutor portrayed the incident as an instance of child abuse that occurred in response to a fussy baby, Pethtel's attorneys argued the details were far too ambiguous for anyone to say with certainty the baby's death was a result of child abuse.
There were no witnesses to the events that took place before the baby was brought to the hospital; his roommate said he was asleep before driving to the hospital.
"What the state told you is not evidence," said defense attorney J. Andrew Crawford. "Nor should it be considered as such. This is a case of 'I don't know exactly.'"
A half dozen medical experts were called to the witness stand over the course of the trial in an attempt to pinpoint the cause of the baby's death.
"He had a blunt force head trauma that was so severe that he stopped breathing," Ellis said. "Level three coma scale, which is the worst. His brain was dead."
The defense said Austin might have developed a sickness that caused him to asphyxiate.
"There was no neck injury,"said Crawford. "No broken bones."
Through the duration of the final hearing, Pethtel was largely expressionless and stared straight ahead as his case was discussed.
Jessica Ondriezek and several of Pethtel's friends waited for more than 8 half hours as the jury deliberated.
"I've known Tracy for 18 years and I've never known for there to be a single violent bone in his body," said Karialyn Petersen, 23. "When he found out he was going to be a father . he was so pumped that there was going to be a kid in his life."
She added that she thought her friend did not receive a fair trial.
"Trying to be unbiased, I still found there was a lot of doubt. There was no motive. There was no will. We're hoping for the best because we don't think it was a fair result."
Tribune reporter Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.