Daycare center owner witnessed Xzayvion Riley beating months before death

Michael Robertson punched his son, Xzayvion Riley, several times in the chest while the 8-year-old sat in a truck outside a day care center just two months before Robertson allegedly beat the boy to death, the center’s director testified Thursday.

“Mr. Robertson was leaning in the back seat, punching Xzayvion in the chest, at least four times, with force. He wasn’t tapping him,” an emotional Evelyn Pierson, owner of Pierson’s Brilliant Minds Learning Center on Gardere Lane, said on the third day of a hearing in Robertson’s first-degree murder case.

“It was a closed fist. It wasn’t a slap. It wasn’t a tap. It was a punch,” she noted while being questioned by East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Will Morris.

Pierson said Xzayvion’s parents, Robertson and Lavaughn Riley, were called to the day care facility on April 9, 2012, because Xzayvion — who had suffered a broken leg two months earlier — was banging his walker on the floor.

Pierson said Riley was signing Xzayvion and his two sisters out when Robertson told the boy, “Wait til I get you home.” “She just froze, like a panic look,” Pierson said of Riley, adding that she tried to assure Riley that Robertson would not harm Xzayvion.

A short time later, Pierson said she witnessed Robertson punching the boy.

“There’s no doubt,” she said of what she observed.

Before Pierson began her testimony, one of Robertson’s court-appointed attorneys, Elizabeth Coe, told state District Judge Don Johnson that Pierson may have committed state and federal crimes by not reporting at the time what she allegedly witnessed. Coe suggested Pierson be allowed time to seek an attorney’s advice or representation before testifying.

“If I did something wrong, I’ll take my licks,” Pierson insisted, saying she was waiving her right against self-incrimination.

Later, during several testy exchanges with Coe, Pierson maintained she was under no obligation to report the alleged punching because Riley already had signed her children out and Xzayvion was in his mother’s care.

“My duty is to report (suspected child abuse) when they’re in my care,” Pierson shouted. “I should have reported it, but the mother was there. He was not in my care. He was out of my care.”

After Coe repeatedly showed Pierson state forms pertaining to child abuse reporting requirements, Pierson’s voice reached a crescendo and she hollered, “We’re here because an 8-year-old was beaten to death, and you’re talking about my (expletive) paperwork!”

At that point, Johnson recessed the hearing for a while to let Pierson cool down. When the hearing resumed, Pierson calmly apologized to the court and resumed her testimony.

Johnson, however, ultimately recessed the hearing until Aug. 1, when Pierson will complete her testimony. Prosecutors also have additional witnesses to call, including one of Xzayvion’s sisters. Robertson’s attorneys are expected to call a number of witnesses as well. The judge set aside three days in November to complete the hearing.

Johnson must determine whether prosecutors will be allowed to introduce at Robertson’s trial evidence of alleged incidents — such as the one Pierson says she observed — leading up to Xzayvion’s death.

Robertson allegedly put a belt to Xzayvion’s mouth in November 2008 and moved it from side to side, leaving abrasions; choked him and shoved his head into a toilet in August 2010, leaving more abrasions; broke his leg in February 2012; and punched him outside Brilliant Minds Learning Center in April 2012.

Robertson’s attorneys contend the alleged incidents are inadmissible and would only prejudice the jury.

Robertson was Riley’s boyfriend and did not live with her.

“The person in the home for all of this was Lavaughn Riley, not Michael Robertson,” Coe argued in court Thursday. “Our position is Lavaughn Riley was the one abusing this child.”

Robertson denied any involvement in his son’s injuries, sheriff’s officials have said.

But one of Xzayvion’s sisters told deputies that Robertson beat him with his fist on June 11, 2012, an affidavit of probable cause states.

Robertson, 48, and Riley, 34, both of Baton Rouge, each are charged with first-degree murder in Xzayvion’s June 12, 2012, death. They were indicted together in August 2012, but will be tried separately.

Riley testified Tuesday that she beat Xzayvion with a belt in February 2012, just days before he suffered his broken leg.

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark concluded Xzayvion’s death was a homicide, finding the boy died of “overwhelming infection” caused by a ruptured bowel from blunt-force trauma to his abdomen. An autopsy also showed 60 external signs of recent and old trauma, including abrasions, bruises and a human bite mark.

One of Xzayvion’s siblings said she saw Robertson bite her brother on a regular basis as a form of discipline, sheriff’s officials have said.