Eric J. Hicks declined either to admit what he’d done or to express remorse when given an opportunity at his sentencing Friday in the 2011 murder of 18-month-old Emjay Corn.
His public defender, Darren Wallace, spoke for Hicks at his hearing in Jasper County Circuit Court in Joplin.
The 30-year-old defendant has taken full responsibility for the boy’s death, Wallace said. His client knows he made choices that landed him where he is, the attorney said. His history of drug addiction and “a dysfunctional relationship with the child’s mother” were contributing factors in the case, he said.
He truly is remorseful, Wallace told Circuit Judge David Mouton. It’s just “difficult for him to process and articulate” to others what he did and how he regrets it, the attorney said.
Hicks subsequently declined to speak for himself when given the chance, even though he was facing up to 25 years in prison — the maximum allowed under the plea deal that he accepted in October — on a conviction for second-degree murder.
Wallace asked the judge to consider a term of 20 years instead, and submitted several letters to the court from family members supporting the defendant and presumably seeking leniency.
“The child was savagely beaten, your honor,” Norman Rouse, assistant prosecutor, told the judge in opposing the defense’s request for a lighter sentence.
Mouton agreed with Rouse and assessed Hicks the full 25 years.
The judge said that a sentencing-assessment report indicated the defendant had acknowledged being under the influence of both methamphetamine and methadone at the time of the child’s death. He said that while seeing the defendant sent to prison for that long a time may well constitute a tragedy for members of his family, “the greater tragedy” in the case was what he had done to a defenseless child.
Before the judge’s decision, Rouse pointed out that the medical examiner who performed an autopsy following the boy’s death on Oct. 28, 2011, found 17 contusions on his face, head, shoulders and arms. That means he was struck 17 times, in a manner the defendant has never felt compelled to divulge, either to police or in court, Rouse said.
The autopsy determined the cause of death to be blunt-force trauma to the child’s head. Police and emergency medical help were called Oct. 29, 2011, to the residence at 1322 S. Pennsylvania Ave., where Hicks lived with the boy and his mother, Nichole Hall. The boy was found in his crib, dead with suspicious bruises.
Police had been to the couple’s home two days earlier and took the mother into custody for a mental-health evaluation. While she was in the hospital, her son was left in the care of the defendant.
Hicks subsequently admitted to investigators that he’d left the child alone in the house the following day for about an hour while he attended a methadone clinic. Methadone is a drug used in the treatment of addictions to other narcotics. He was charged with child endangerment based on that admission. The murder charge was filed a few months later.
Hall, the child’s mother, initially defended her boyfriend, suggesting that her son died of complications from neurofibromatosis, a genetically inherited disorder. But the boy’s father, Michael Corn, of Odessa, disputed that Emjay had ever been diagnosed with the disorder and told the Globe that he believed his son was murdered from what he saw of him at the funeral home where he was taken after the autopsy.
The mother displayed a decided change of heart in a victim-impact letter submitted to the court at Friday’s hearing.
In the letter, Hall wrote that she now believes Hicks was responsible for her son’s death and that he needs to take responsibility for what he did and to serve time in prison to make things “right with God, my precious son, himself and those who he has hurt by taking my son’s life.”
“He took my world when he killed my son and it’s hard for me to say what I’d like to see happen with his life without anger and hurt affecting my wishes,” she wrote. “It will take time before I am able to fully forgive him for what he has done.”
Because defendants convicted of second-degree murder in Missouri are required to serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole, Eric Hicks must serve at least 21 years and three months in prison.