Coroner finds infant died of asphyxia in father’s care

Two months after a local man was accused of murder in the death of his 6-month-old son, an infant who showed signs of previous abuse, the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office has determined the baby asphyxiated while lying in an adult-sized bed.

But Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner, said he could not find sufficient evidence to classify Aiden King’s death as either a homicide or an accident, an indeterminate ruling that could complicate prosecution of the baby’s father, Curtis E. King, who was booked with second-degree murder in the case.

King’s arrest in November came several months after an incident in which police say he placed the baby in scalding bath water, leaving Aiden with burns to about 80 percent of his body.

Aiden’s death — caused by his inability to breathe in the oversized bed — differed significantly from cases of accidental asphyxia the parish has seen, Clark said, in part because of the history of neglect, the baby’s prior medical condition and the uncertainty surrounding the father’s intentions.

“We did a pretty robust investigation,” Clark said Tuesday. “Medically and scientifically, this was a very complex case. But I don’t feel comfortable calling (the manner of death) anything other than undetermined with the history of the burns.”

King, 23, 11888 Longridge Ave., remains jailed in lieu of $170,000 bail and has not been indicted in his son’s death. Prosecutors have up to four months to charge defendants remaining in custody after their arrest who face a possible life sentence.

District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he was aware of the autopsy results, but added prosecutors are still awaiting various reports and weighing which charges to pursue. Investigators are also reviewing evidence from the bath water scalding, a process that has been complicated because Aiden was taken to a hospital in Texas for specialized treatment.

“I don’t think we’ll be in a position to show a murder charge, but I’m just not sure,” Moore said, adding he may present the case to a grand jury. “We haven’t made a decision one way or another yet.”

Whichever route prosecutors choose, a criminal proceeding is likely to shed more light on the decision by the Department of Children and Family Services not to take Aiden into protective custody despite his life-threatening burn injuries that were caused by apparent neglect. The state agency closed its file on Aiden three months before his death, a spokeswoman has said, because officials “did not receive any evidence or medical reports that indicated additional safety or abuse risks were present.”

DCFS case records remain confidential under state law — even after the death of a neglected child — unless they are introduced in court.

Authorities responded to King’s residence Oct. 29 after Aiden was reported to be unresponsive. King had left the child unattended behind a closed door, investigators said, while King was in another room separating marijuana to sell.

The father later fell asleep next to the baby on an adult-sized bed and said he awoke to find the child unresponsive, police have said. The baby was taken to a hospital and remained on life support until Nov. 6.

Sgt. Mary Ann Godawa, a police spokeswoman, released a statement at the time of King’s arrest saying detectives determined the child suffered injuries “consistent with abuse and neglect, which ultimately led to (his) death.”

“What we found,” Clark said Tuesday, “is that the child had an asphyxia event, but we’re again unsure of whether there was intent. It’s not as clear cut as some of our other infant deaths where it’s a co-sleeping or positional asphyxia scenario with no previous history” of abuse.

A police search of King’s home turned up a digital scale and a plastic bag of marijuana seeds in the closet of the baby’s bedroom. Investigators also found a black bookbag in the baby’s closet with more than 13 ounces of marijuana and about 50 dosage units of THC pills, according to court records. King admitted selling drugs “to make enough money to pay the bills,” an affidavit says.

While the baby’s cause of death was not immediately clear, King was booked on counts of second-degree murder and second-degree cruelty to a juvenile.

“I think that, based on what they were presented at the time, they had to proceed and they moved forward under those charges,” Moore said. “If everyone could sit back and wait, that’s probably the preferable course to go, however I think in this case they made a good decision based on what they had. It’s just a complicated case.”

The allegation that King was sorting drugs in the home could play a key role in the case. Even defendants who lack “intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm” may be charged with second-degree murder in Louisiana if a death occurs during the commission of certain felonies, including cruelty to juveniles.

Louisiana law defines cruelty to juveniles in part as “the intentional or criminally negligent allowing of any child under the age of 17 years by any person over the age of 17 years to be present during the manufacturing, distribution, or purchasing or attempted manufacturing, distribution, or purchasing of a controlled dangerous substance ...”

In May, when Aiden was a month old, he suffered second- and third-degree burns after King placed him in scalding bath water, authorities have said. He was airlifted to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Galveston, Texas, in critical condition. He survived his wounds, but received permanent scarring and had to undergo multiple skin grafts. Doctors also located “multiple healing rib fractures,” police have said, an indication of previous abuse.

“To be quite honest with you, when we heard about the burns way back when, nobody really expected him to survive that and he did,” Clark said.

Detectives traveled to Galveston during their initial investigation but have said they lacked probable cause to arrest King at the time. Despite the scalding incident, Aiden was returned to his parents at some point, a decision Baton Rouge police say they were not aware of until Aiden was found unresponsive.

Lindsey deBlieux, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Children and Family Services, has said the agency had closed its case on Aiden’s family at the time of the baby’s death.

“At the time of the case closure, the child was still under the care of a physician from Shriners Hospital in Galveston,” she said. “Aiden did not enter DCFS custody.”