GOSHEN — A New Paris woman wants a review of the 30-year sentence she’s serving following the death of a child she was babysitting.
Jackie Rolston, 62, filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Elkhart County Superior Court 3 on Nov. 26. The move came nearly two years to the day after a jury in that court found Rolston guilty of a Level 2 felony charge of battery resulting in the death of a child. She was accused at trial of causing the death of 19-month old Kirk Coleman with a head injury as she babysat the boy at her home in 2014.
Rolston was then sentenced to 28 years in prison and two years of probation in December 2016.
She appealed the conviction, arguing the prosecution’s evidence didn’t support the conviction, photos used as evidence at trial unfairly prejudiced the jury against Rolston, and the sentence was too harsh based on her age, health issues and her character.
The Indiana Appeals Court denied the appeal, and the Indiana Supreme Court refused to take up the case last year.
As Rolston brings the case back to Elkhart County, she cited as grounds for relief her trial and appellate counsel were ineffective — including that her appeal did not argue she failed to receive a fair trial due to high-profile media coverage — and that she has evidence of “new science” on brain injuries, information in the new filing shows.
Angie Garza and her daughter Anissa Garza, Coleman’s mother, want Rolston to remain in prison. Angie Garza believes Rolston should take responsibility for the child’s death, saying Rolston is still in denial.
“I think she’s grasping at straws,” Angie Garza said, and then later lamented that Rolston hasn’t apologized to her family. “She never once admitted, she never once said I’m sorry, she never once said anything.”
She also hopes the court will deny Rolston’s post-conviction relief petition, according to a post on the Facebook page Justice For Kirk last Thursday.
“I have faith that this will go nowhere,” the post states.
Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker refuted the claims outline in Rolston’s petition.
“The state of Indiana denies each and every allegation as set forth in the petitioner’s petition for post-conviction relief,” Becker wrote in her response to the filing.
Superior Court 3 Judge Teresa Cataldo appointed a state public defender to represent Rolston in the post conviction relief case, and she scheduled a hearing for next March.
At trial, Becker, who was chief deputy prosecutor at the time, contended Rolston struck Coleman on the head hard enough to kill him while she was watching him and three other children at her home on Oct.29, 2014.
According to case information, Rolston called 9-1-1 to report Coleman was choking as he ate scrambled eggs for lunch. Her husband, a volunteer firefighter, was the first at the scene and tried to resuscitate the 19-month old. Coleman was later pronounced dead at Goshen Hospital.
There were no indications Coleman had choked or his airway was blocked, according to court documents.
But after an autopsy, Dr. Joseph Prahlow, a forensic pathologist testified he discovered a “great deal” of blood and contusions on Coleman’s brain, resulting from significant trauma. Prahlow found the boy died from blunt force trauma to the head, and he likely would’ve had a neurological disability, such as loss of fine motor control, within minutes of the injury, court information shows.
Prahlow also testified he doubted a blow from another toddler could cause such an injury short of pushing the victim off a balcony.
Photos from the autopsy were displayed during Prahlow’s testimony as visual aids. The prosecution also used a photo of Coleman and his mother as evidence he was in relatively good health a few days before his death.
Rolston’s attorney argued on appeal in 2017 the photo of Coleman before he died unfairly prejudiced the jury against Rolston and had little evidentiary value.
Similarly, the appeal challenged the use of the autopsy photos as “gruesome” and “unnecessary,” court information shows.
The Appeals Court rejected the arguments, siding with the state that the images were relevant to the case, while noting Rolston’s trial attorney did not object to the use of the autopsy photos as evidence during the trial.
Rolston also claimed she was convicted in spite of the prosecution presenting insufficient evidence, arguing the state only proved she was in the same place as Coleman when he died and never proved she committed battery.
The Appeals Court was unconvinced and said the evidence at the scene, Dr. Prahlow’s expert testimony and evidence of prior injuries and neurological abnormalities from times Coleman was in Rolston’s care were enough to show the prosecution met its burden of proof.
“The jury was free to conclude from the state’s evidence that Rolston fabricated her claim that K.C. had choked,” Judge Edward Najam wrote in the Appeals Court’s decision last year.
The court also upheld Rolston’s 28-year prison sentence as fair by agreeing with Judge Cataldo’s assessment that the nature of the crime was “egregious.” Najam, in the opinion, pointed out this wasn’t the first time Rolston was accused of child abuse.
Rolston had pleaded guilty to a felony count of neglect of a dependent, and a charge of battery to a child was dismissed in February 2008. She was then sentenced to 18 months of probation, court information shows.
That case, which stemmed from an incident in 2006, had parallels to the circumstances in Coleman’s death, according to Garza. She said both cases involved boys close to the same age and with similar injuries. Garza got to know the family from the other case while Rolston faced prosecution, she said.
After the Appeals Court denied Rolston’s appeal in August 2017, her attorney took the case to the Indiana Supreme Court. But the high court turned the motion down about a month later, affirming the appellate decision, court information shows.
“NEWLY DISCOVERED EVIDENCE”
As Rolston pursues post-conviction relief now, she lists a three-point argument, claiming:
• Her trial attorney did not rely on expert or character witnesses or challenge Dr. Prahlow’s testimony in her defense;
• Her appellate attorney failed to argue she received an unfair trial after Cataldo denied a motion for a change of venue due to intense media coverage, “which placed the defendant in grave peril,” Rolston wrote in the post conviction relief filing;
• And she has evidence of “new science” that shows bleeding on the brain can manifest as “serious problems” within days instead of hours. “According to child abuse researchers, if a child has several caregivers (baby sitters, relatives and immediate family members) it’s impossible to say Rolston inflicted the injuries to the child,” Rolston wrote in her petition.
Garza said she’d like to see the evidence Rolston has that can refute the testimony provided at trial by Dr. Prahlow, who she described as one of the top pathologists in the country. Garza believes Rolston should remain in prison.
“She did the crime, she needs to do the time,” Garza said.
The truth of what exactly killed Coleman may be lost while Rolston disputes her conviction, Garza conceded.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever really know what happened,” Garza said.
In opposing Rolston’s motion, Becker said the petition’s claims fail to meet standards for relief, the conviction and sentence were “proper,” no “genuine issues of material facts” are in dispute, issues raised in the PCR were waived when they weren’t brought up on appeal, and Rolston’s issues were already decided on appeal, court information shows.
A hearing on the issue is set for March 19.
In the wake of Coleman’s death, the Indiana General Assembly enacted a new law in 2016, “Kirk’s Law,” named after Coleman.
The legislation, sponsored by former Indiana Sen. Carlin Yoder of Middlebury while he was still in office, led to the creation of an online database of those convicted of felony child abuse, neglect or trafficking charges.
Users can search the registry by names or case numbers through Indiana’s courts portal at www.PublicAccess.courts.in.gov/car#. The registry went live in June 2017 as Rolston appealed her conviction.
Aimee Ambrose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 316.