ORLANDO, Fla. – The judge who presided over the Casey Anthony trial told News4Jax on Thursday that the Lonzie Barton case has uncanny similarities to the 2011 Orlando case that captivated the nation.
In that case, 2-year-old Caylee Anthony disappeared in July 2008 and her skeletal remains were found about six months later inside a trash bag in a wooded area. Her mother, Casey Anthony, was charged with and acquitted of murder in the case.
Lonzie Barton was nearly 2 years old when he disappeared last July. Police announced Monday that they believe they found his remains in a garbage heap in a wooded area of Jacksonville.
State Attorney Angela Corey noted similarities in the cases after the remains were discovered.
Former Judge Belvin Perry, who is now an attorney with Morgan & Morgan, said the most difficult aspect is the similar six-month time frames.
“It's going to be a very difficult road for the prosecution in this case,” Perry said. “I think the state attorney recognizes that by her comments.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office continues to work to identify the child's remains found this week and determine the cause of death. In the Casey Anthony trial, the medical examiner ruled Caylee’s death was by “undetermined means.”
“If you have a skeleton and you have a crushed skull, one could find that the child may have died as a result of blows to the head. But without some physical evidence, you would be totally left to speculate as to what the cause of death would be," Perry said. "When you prosecute a case where at this time, you don't exactly know what the cause of death is, you have a body that may have been badly decomposed or completely down to a skeleton, which may make it very difficult to determine the cause of death if they are ever able to."
He said that could lead to reasonable doubt from a jury in a trial.
Prosecutors endured criticism after the Casey Anthony trial from some who said they overcharged in seeking a first-degree murder conviction, which requires them to prove a homicide was intentional and planned ahead of time. Perry said he disagrees with that take, and that it shouldn’t be a concern in the Lonzie case.
“If you go down to the mid-range, you alleviate any (plea) bargaining position that you may have,” Perry said. “If there's evidence to support that, then you (shouldn't) eliminate that charge without even trying to prove it.”
Corey said after the remains were found that more charges were likely coming in the case, but she declined to say how many or who those charges would be filed against.
Ruben Ebron, the man police have long called their prime suspect in the boy's disappearance, is already awaiting trial on charges of child neglect, lying to police and tampering with evidence. Lonzie's mother, Lonna Barton, who was Ebron's girlfriend when the toddler was reported missing, pleaded guilty last week to charges of child neglect and lying to police.
“When a child is in the custody of multiple adults and we don't have a way to time the injuries, it's been a historic problem for us,” Corey said. “It's very difficult when there is more than one person involved and the cause of death is not immediately known.”
Ebron led police to the site where the remains were found and there were rumors a plea agreement had been reached Monday that would have had Ebron serving 20 years for aggravated manslaughter.
Perry said that as a former judge, he’s not sure he would have accepted a possible plea deal that early, because he said that Ebron had much of the power.
Corey would not discuss if any bargaining had happened, but Perry said that it is likely.
“They were basically getting nowhere. They could not find the body. The charges that they were looking at were all non-murder-related charges,” Perry said. “Without them bargaining, simply ask this question: Would they have found this body?”
Perry spoke highly of the job Corey and her team have done with the Lonzie case. He said that they are thorough and calculated and that he is confident that, in time, they will get to the bottom of what happened to the little boy.
But he pointed out that answers might take time. Casey Anthony’s trial didn't take place until 2011, even though Caylee was found at the end of 2008.