Jury issues verdict in boy’s birthday death

Jury convicts Tavon Ludy of killing 5-year-old on his birthday

A jury convicted Tavon Ludy of first-degree murder and the aggravated assault of a child Thursday after nearly 6 hours of deliberation. Ludy punched Tavion Whittaker as a punishment, causing the boy's heart to stop.
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A jury convicted Tavon Ludy of first-degree murder and the aggravated assault of a child Thursday after nearly 6 hours of deliberation. Ludy punched Tavion Whittaker as a punishment, causing the boy's heart to stop.

Tavon Ludy was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated assault of a child by a Madison County jury Thursday after nearly six hours of deliberation.

Ludy, 27, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his fiancee’s son on his fifth birthday, and with aggravated battery of a child for beating Torian’s older brother, Zajamin. Ludy admitted to punching Torian in the chest on Sept. 29, 2013, because the boy disobeyed him.

Prosecutor Jennifer Mudge pointed out in her closing argument that 5-year-old Torian Whitaker laid on the floor for 10 minutes before Ludy called 911.

“It was his birthday,” Mudge said. “He should have felt loved, and safe, and happy. But before he had finished his cereal, he took a fatal blow to the chest. He was told to get up, then he was picked up, taken to the basement and laid on the cold linoleum floor. And lay there alone and dying for at least 10 minutes before anyone bothered to call 911.”

Mudge pointed out that Ludy began texting and calling Torian’s mother, Toria Coleman, from 10:07 a.m. until 10:17 a.m., when he called 911. Coleman was not present at the time; she was out shopping for a birthday present for Torian.

“You know what those boys went through, what Torian went through,” Mudge said, going over testimony referring to a pattern of whipping the children with belts and punching them when they misbehaved.

Mudge said in order for the jury to find Ludy guilty, they had to determine that he performed the act that caused Torian’s death, and that he knew there was a strong probability of death or great bodily harm.

“He’s a grown man who punched a 5-year-old boy in the chest, knocking him off his chair,” Mudge said. “We don’t have to prove why he did this, other than that he’s just a monster. We only have to prove that he knew his acts would cause great bodily harm to Torian, and it sure did.”

Mudge replayed some of Ludy’s interview with police, in which he discussed his discipline. He had told police that Torian was in trouble because he had wet the bed. “They’re small boys, and he’s making fun of them crying,” Mudge said.

She pointed out that it’s more than an hour into the interview before he asked whether Torian was okay, at which point police told him that the boy was dead.

“People don’t witness child abuse,” Mudge said. “You don’t have people coming in saying, ‘I saw him punch his kid at Walmart.’ Because people who abuse children do it behind closed doors. As much as you can assume what was going on with those boys, that’s probably a very small percentage of what was really happening with those boys.”

Defense attorney David Fahrenkamp said that the jury should rule on the law and not the emotion of the case. He said in order for Ludy’s punch to cause Torian’s death, he had to strike him within milliseconds of the heart’s cycle, which pathologist Dr. Raj Nanduri had testified was “very rare.”

“Science tells us that, not emotion, not tears,” Fahrenkamp said. “He couldn’t have known that at that time, that force, would kill him.”

He criticized Mudge for calling Ludy a monster. “He’s not a monster,” Fahrenkamp said, saying the trial should not be a referendum on spanking or appropriate child discipline. “He’s a person, he may not be as smart in some areas as other people, but he’s a person.”

He said the jury needed to look at the facts and the law and leave the emotion aside.

Mudge replied that what was rare the moment of time in the heartbeat cycle. The beatings Torian and Zajamin endured were not, she said.

“In this country, you don’t get to say that I’m too stupid to know that when I hit this kid in the chest his chest wasn’t fully formed, so I get to walk out of here,” Mudge said. “You don’t get to do that in your home to your children… and when they die, say it’s okay. That is not the law.”

The prosecution rested Wednesday afternoon after two days of testimony and evidence. The jury received the case at 10:30 a.m. and returned their verdict shortly before 4:30 p.m.

Fahrenkamp had declined to put on any witnesses or evidence after Judge Kyle Napp ruled Wednesday that the report of a previous investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was inadmissible. DCFS’ investigation had concluded that reports of child abuse were unfounded, but Napp said that DCFS investigations do not rise to the level of a criminal investigation.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald