The Journal Gazette
Thursday, March 21, 2019 8:57 pm

Jury reaches verdict in murder case

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Allen County jurors on Thursday found a Fort Wayne man not guilty of murder in the 2017 beating death of a toddler but convicted him of two other charges.

Mitchell Vanryn, 28, will be sentenced May 3 on charges of aggravated battery and domestic battery. He faces up to 70 years in prison.

The murder charge could have added another 65 years behind bars.

"It's not justice," the boy's grandmother, Chante Harter, said as she exited the courtroom. "Malakai didn't get justice."

The verdict capped a three-day trial in which witnesses testified Malakai Garrett, 2, suffered gruesome injuries at the hands of Vanryn, the boyfriend of the child's mother. Prosecutors said Vanryn hated Malakai and grew increasingly frustrated with the boy's inability or unwillingness to use the bathroom.

Vanryn, who took the witness stand Thursday afternoon, said Malakai was sick and struck his head on a coffee table days before his death. The boy was found unresponsive in his bed after being put down for a nap, he testified.

Responding to questions from Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Patricia Pikel, Vanryn also said he couldn't explain several bruises found on the child's body.

Indiana's murder statute states someone commits murder if they "knowingly or intentionally" kill another person, and those words apparently spared Vanryn a conviction.

Defense attorney Randall Hammond questioned whether his client intended to kill the boy as prosecutors Pikel and Karen Richards maintained text messages sent from Vanryn to Amber Garrett – Malakai's mother, who is charged with two counts of felony neglect – showed intent. The messages said the child "got the belt" and indicated Vanryn punished the boy for defecating in his diaper.

Hammond, in closing arguments, said Vanryn – the only person home with Malakai all day – also tried to save the boy by rushing him from their home on Palmetta Court to a nearby fire station, where emergency workers performed CPR. Malakai was later pronounced dead at Parkview Regional Medical Center.

"Knowingly or intentionally – that's debatable," Hammond said. "That requires thought, that requires thinking to form intent. Where is there proof Mitch Vanryn had intent to kill Malakai?"

Dr. Scott Wagner performed an autopsy on Malakai and found internal injuries consistent with strikes from a closed fist. Organs were "shredded," a kidney was bruised and Malakai suffered a lacerated pancreas and liver, he said.

Wagner said force equal be falling from a three-story building would be necessary to cause such injuries.

"I don't see any way for him to have done this to himself," the pathologist testified. "I'm not God, but it would have been very difficult to save him."

Jurors viewed photos of Malakai showing bruises all over the child's body.

Defense attorney James Hanson questioned whether the internal injuries might have been caused by pressing on the boy, rather than from strikes. Wagner said that was unlikely.

Vanryn testified he attempted to perform CPR after finding Malakai unresponsive. When he did, he said he noticed the boy's abdomen begin to "inflate," he said.

Vanryn then pressed on the boy's stomach, he said.

Jurors also were shown a recording of an interview by Fort Wayne Police Detective Liza Anglin of Vanryn the day of the child's death. In it, Vanryn tells the investigator he found the boy unresponsive and put him in the shower to try to wake him up before taking him to the fire station on North Clinton Street.

Vanryn repeated the claim in court.

Prosecutors pointed several times to the fact Vanryn never called 911. Vanryn said going to the fire station "was my 911."

"Did he intend to save the child?" Richards asked. "Oh, come on. Let's be serious."

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