The good news: the infant victim in this case survived! The bad news:
- Bilateral compound femur fractures
- Bilateral metaphyseal (“bucket handle”) fractures consistent with twisting and yanking the legs
- Severe buttock bruising
- Posterior rib fractures consistent with squeezing or crushing
Those were the injuries inflicted upon then five-month-old Legend Blake Lee, according to the Audauga County Sheriff’s Office. Legend’s abusers were sentenced on November 8, 2019, but let’s start at the beginning.
Jacqueline Breann Lee and Nicholas Ryan Lanier found love in the least likely of places: at the local Waffle House restaurant where they both worked. It seems when they began dating, Jacqueline was already pregnant with Legend; Nicholas was not the baby’s biological father, although, judging by Jacqueline’s two Facebook accounts, she considered him the baby’s daddy.
On July 14, 2016, the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) notified the Autauga County Sheriff’s Office of a case DHR had been investigating involving aggravated child abuse. According to DHR’s investigation, little Legend sustained a series of vicious injuries beginning in June of 2016.
Jacqueline Lee (then age 20), was arrested on September 9, 2016 and charged with aggravated child abuse; Nicholas Lanier (also 20 at the time), was arrested a few days later on September 13 on the same charge.
Bond of $150,000 was set for each of them. Because each of them was charged with a class B felony, they faced up to 20 years in prison.
In March of 2016, Alabama Legislature passed “Winston’s Law,” named for a high-profile case in Elmore County in which a four-year-old boy was physically abused. Winston’s Law assigns Class A felony status to aggravated child abuse when the child is under the age of six; the punishment for such a conviction would range from 10 to 99 years to life in prison. The aggravated child abuse charge on which Jacqueline and Nicholas were indicted was a Class B felony, which could incur anywhere from two to 20 years in prison. Assistant District Attorney Josh Cochran was unsure why the couple was not charged under Winston’s law, explaining that another district attorney was in charge when the case was presented to a grand jury.
According to Jacqueline’s attorney, Trey Norman, who was actually involved in the case that led to Winston’s Law being passed, Nicholas and Jacqueline lived together in Deatsville, Alabama at the time of their arrest and claimed to “co-parent” the baby. Since they worked opposing shifts at the Waffle House, each of them would care for Legend while the other worked. Other relatives would watch the child from time to time, as well.
“Any time there were signs the boy was injured,” Norman said, “[Jacqueline] took him to the doctor. She took him up to Clanton and took him to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham several times. Obviously the child was injured. I don’t know who injured the child. But I know who didn’t, and that is Jacqueline Lee.”
In court on July 29, 2019, both Jacqueline and Nicholas pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, which is a misdemeanor charge punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in county jail.
ADA Cochran said after the guilty pleas were entered in July, “We don’t believe Jacqueline Lee caused the injuries to the child, but she did not seek medical treatment in a timely manner. Our theory is that Nicholas Lanier caused the injuries. But other people also cared for the child at the time.” Regarding the state allowing Jacqueline and Nicholas to plead guilty to a lesser charge, he added, “It was a circumstantial case at best. This way, we do get convictions.”
During the sentencing hearing on November 8, Cochran told Circuit Judge Ben Fuller that he was “positive” Nicholas was the one who injured Legend, whose injuries were consistent with “torture,” according to Cochran. Because there was not enough evidence to prove Nicholas’s guilt on the initial charge of aggravated child abuse “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cochran said, they were able to reach a plea agreement instead.
Both Trey Norman, Jacqueline’s attorney, and Chip Cleveland, Nicholas’s attorney, told Judge Fuller during separate proceedings that there was not enough evidence to prove either of their clients were responsible for Legend’s injuries. Judge Fuller, an experienced judge, grew visibly upset several times during the proceedings. At one point, he read aloud the list of Legend’s injuries. Both attorneys tried to blame the baby’s injuries on a fall off a bed or being hurt in a bouncy seat. (You know how violent those bouncy seats can be, right? …Right?)
At this lame excuse, the judge flipped. “Oh, come on! This didn’t happen rolling off the bed; you know that! These are not injuries from a fall or a bouncy seat. Do you know what compound fracture means? It means the bones were broken and displaced. It’s not a hairline fracture. These are horrendous and sickening injuries. And believe me, I’ve seen sickening things.”
Nicholas was sentenced first and said to Judge Fuller, “I have not and would never harm [Legend]. In my heart he is my son. I pleaded guilty because I know I have made mistakes. I may not have been attentive enough.”
(Yeah, okay, buddy.)
Attorney Cleveland told Judge Fuller that while the couple is no longer together and live in separate towns, Nicholas still gets to spend time with Legend once a month.
During the prosecution’s explanation to Judge Fuller of their theory of the case, Nicholas’s mom, who stood beside him in front of the bench, couldn’t seem to keep her trap shut, making snide remarks. The judge gestured to the bailiff, who said to the woman, “You’re going to have to leave, ma’am, before you get put in jail.” (HA! I love it.) Officers escorted Nicholas’s mom from the courtroom, along with several other family members who were sitting in the gallery.
When it came time for Nicholas’s sentencing, Cochran asked the judge to impose the maximum punishment. Judge Fuller clearly agreed, sentencing Nicholas to spend the maximum sentence of one year in the metro jail and to pay the maximum fee of $6,000. “I’m not about forgiveness today. I’m about accountability,” Fuller told Nicholas. “I agree with Josh; a year is not enough.”
With that, Nicholas was handcuffed and led to the jury box to sit with the rest of the defendants from other cases still waiting for their respective sentencing hearings.
Next up was Jacqueline. The state recommended a one year suspended sentence and two years of unsupervised probation. “We don’t believe Miss Lee actually caused the injuries,” Cochran said to the court. “However, she is the child’s mother.”
Addressing the judge, Jacqueline said, “I love my son very much. I will regret every day of my life not protecting him.”
Judge Fuller at one point snapped at Trey Norman, “She has a duty to protect her child. How could she not know what was going on? We’re not talking about having a skinned knee.”
Just then, jail warden Larry Nixon interrupted the hearing by striding across the courtroom. “I’m sorry, your honor,” he said without further explanation as he and another officer whisked Nicholas Lanier out of the jury box and out the back door of the courtroom toward the jail located behind the courthouse. Nixon later explained why he removed Nicholas from the courtroom: “I noticed he was becoming agitated and moving around in the jury box and was muttering curse words. He was removed for his own safety and the safety of others.”
Judge Fuller resumed his tirade against Jacqueline’s lack of maternal instinct. “Did you never bathe him? Did you never change a diaper? It is inconceivable to me that you were unaware of these injuries.” Nonetheless, he went along with the recommended sentence “…in accordance with the state’s recommendation spelled out in the plea agreement.”
Jacqueline currently lives with her mother, who has custody of now-three-year-old Legend, in Mobile. Regarding Legend’s health, Norman said, “The boy has made a phenomenal recovery and is doing very well. We anticipate seeking custody of the boy to be returned to Jacqueline.”
I don’t know whether to hope Jacqueline regains custody of Legend or not. On one hand, she’s his mother. On the other, I agree with the judge: there’s no way she didn’t know her tiny baby was injured, and there’s no way she didn’t piece it together that he ended up injured after spending time alone with his “daddy,” Nicholas. Either way, here’s hoping the adults in this handsome little man’s life have recommitted themselves to protecting him from harm.
Click here for more of my coverage on Legend’s case.
Sources: Alabama News Network, WFSA 12 News, Montgomery Advertiser, Facebook