Through nearly four years in custody, Bryan Daniels never got the chance to say a proper goodbye to his son, as authorities accused him of killing his 20-month-old boy.
On Friday, a Warren County jury granted Daniels, 22, of Monticello, his freedom, acquitting him of murder and two other counts in a trial that lasted five days.
Jurors deliberated for eight hours before returning a not guilty verdict on murder, first-degree controlled substance endangerment to a child and engaging in organized crime.
An elated, sobbing Daniels hugged his family and his defense team after Wayne Circuit Judge Vernon Miniard Jr. read the verdict.
“I’m very happy, I’ve been waiting for this for almost four years,” Daniels said after the trial. “I’m ready to straighten my life out and be a better person.”
Miniard had dismissed a manufacturing methamphetamine charge against Daniels on Thursday.
Daniels and six other people were charged in connection with the May 30, 2009, death of Kayden Branham, who drank drain cleaner from a coffee cup sitting on a table in the bedroom of the Monticello trailer where Daniels stayed with Kayden and the child’s mother, Alisha Branham.
Kayden died within an hour of drinking the caustic product, sold as Liquid Fire, from internal injuries.
Daniels had spent the past 44 months in custody, 39 of those in jail and the rest of the time under house arrest. He had not been allowed to attend Kayden’s funeral or visit his son’s grave site, and he said Friday that would be the first thing he planned to do.
“He knew I wouldn’t do anything to hurt him,” Daniels said of his son.
Liquid Fire, which contains sulfuric acid, is often used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, and authorities claimed that the fluid in the coffee cup was left over from a meth lab that was made earlier in the day in the trailer.
Daniels did not testify at the trial, but other witnesses told the jury that Daniels was not present when a group of people came to the trailer during the day to make the illegal, highly addictive stimulant.
According to testimony, Daniels kept Branham and Kayden out of the trailer when a group of people set up the meth lab.
Witnesses testified at trial, and Daniels admitted in recorded interviews with the Kentucky State Police that were played for the jury, that people had come to the trailer on previous occasions to make meth.
Daniels told police in the interviews conducted hours after Kayden’s death that he believed juice was in the cup Kayden picked up and drank.
He also told police in the interviews that he used meth and smoked marijuana on that day, and had taken Lorcet the night before, although no blood tests were produced as evidence at trial despite Kentucky State Police Trooper Tony Dingess telling Daniels he would request a blood sample to determine the presence of drugs in his system.
After everyone else left that night, Kayden reached for the coffee cup on the table in the bedroom, but Daniels took it from the boy and placed it farther back on the table, according to testimony.
Daniels then went into the kitchen to get some juice for Kayden while Branham changed into her bedclothes. Kayden grabbed the cup while his parents weren’t looking and took a drink.
“I should never have been charged,” said Daniels, who has a job lined up in Indiana remodeling restaurants. “Some of those other people were responsible ... all those people who thought I was guilty, now they know I’m innocent.”
Two of those people, Danny Anderson Jr. and James Hunt, are charged with murder and three other counts. Their cases are pending.
Branham, who was 14 at the time of Kayden’s death, was charged with murder, and her case was resolved in juvenile court.
Branham’s father, Larry Branham, is charged with child endangerment, complicity to manufacture methamphetamine and engaging in organized crime.
Two other people pleaded guilty to reduced drug charges.
Wayne County Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew Leveridge declined to comment on the verdict, but said after the trial that he intends to go forward in prosecuting Anderson and Hunt.
Leveridge said he may potentially use Daniels as a witness against Anderson and Hunt.
“That’s a bridge we’ve got to cross when we get there,” Leveridge said.
Daniels’ attorney, Mark Stanziano of Somerset, argued forcefully for his client’s innocence.
Stanziano said during his closing statement Friday that Daniels kept Kayden away from the trailer when others were supposed to have been there making meth, and that he had no connection to and did not benefit directly from the drug-making operation.
“You can fault Alisha Branham and Bryan for a lot of things ... but you don’t have the wisdom of Solomon on the day you turn 18,” Stanziano said during his closing argument. “The decisions they made weren’t crimes, they were just bad decisions.”
Stanziano characterized the murder charge against Daniels as “ridiculous” and reminded jurors of Daniels’ statement to police that he believed the cup contained juice and that it would have looked similar to Liquid Fire, which has no chemical smell.
Stanziano also told jurors that the cup itself was never recovered by police.
“Even if (Daniels) knew it was Liquid Fire, he took the cup and tried to move it away,” Stanziano said.
Although the incident occurred about 105 miles away in Wayne County, the case was tried in Warren County after excessive pretrial publicity caused the trial venue to be moved to Russell County. When a jury could not be seated there in June, the trial was moved to Warren County.