GUILTY VER­DICT

Dad re­ceives max sen­tence for deaths of son, daugh­ter

The Saline Courier - - FRONT PAGE - By Sarah Perry [email protected]­ton­courier.com

Af­ter de­lib­er­at­ing for only 20 min­utes, a jury of seven men and six woman found a fa­ther guilty of caus­ing the 2017 deaths of his two chil­dren.

While in Sa­line County Cir­cuit Court on Thurs­day, Jonathan Wel­born, 32, was stoic as the ver­dict was read. Wel­born re­ceived the max­i­mum sen­tence — 52 years — for his charges which in­cluded two counts of neg­li­gent homi­cide and two counts of first­de­gree en­dan­ger­ing the wel­fare of a mi­nor.

Wel­born tes­ti­fied that while un­der the influence of metham­phetamine he drove a ve­hi­cle with his chil­dren into a pond. While “in shock” he re­turned to a res­i­dence on Arkansas 298 and told the chil­dren’s mother and oth­ers at the res­i­dence that his ve­hi­cle had been stolen. The chil­dren were later lo­cated, along with the truck, in a nearby pond.

“I wanted to be­lieve that the truck was go­ing to be there (at the res­i­dence),” Wel­born said. “In my mind, I blocked that out.”

He said the in­ci­dent was an ac­ci­dent, say­ing he was “own­ing up.”

Dur­ing the sen­tenc­ing por­tion of the trial, Sa­line County Chief Deputy Prose­cu­tor Rebecca Bush asked the jury to give Wel­born the harsh­est sen­tence pos­si­ble.

“He left those ba­bies strapped in that car,” said Bush. “I can’t imag­ine that’s not worth the max­i­mum penalty.”

She ex­plained that when tak­ing into ac­count good be­hav­ior, Wel­born, with the max­i­mum sen­tence, will be re­leased in less than nine years. He will also re­ceive credit for the more than two years he al­ready served at the Sa­line County De­ten­tion Cen­ter prior to

his trial.

Af­ter the jury re­turned a guilty ver­dict, both the pros­e­cu­tion and de­fense had the op­por­tu­nity to speak with the jury be­fore mem­bers de­lib­er­ated on a sen­tence.

Wel­born’s mother, Nancy Wel­born, asked the jury to have com­pas­sion and mercy.

“He trusts you to give a de­ci­sion that was hon­est and from your heart,” his mother pleaded. “I ask you to have com­pas­sion.”

She spoke of her son’s faith and how he has lead many men to be­come Chris­tians.

The chil­dren’s mother, Brit­tany Hairston, as well as their grand­mother, An­gela Hol­loway, read state­ment about how that tragic night has af­fected their lives. Two-year-old Sophia loved princess dresses and baby dolls and Zaine, 5 months, had said “Mama” for the first time.

“It is now mem­o­ries. That is all I have,” Hairston said.

Hairston and Wel­born were both emo­tional as she read her state­ment and spoke of her night ter­rors and sui­cide at­tempts.

“It’s hard for me to go through the day,” she said. “My life will never be the same.

Ear­lier in the trial, Hairston, who also was charged in con­nec­tion with the in­ci­dent, ad­mit­ted to mak­ing bad de­ci­sions that day.

For leav­ing the chil­dren in­side the ve­hi­cle and unat­tended, Hairston was charged with two counts of en­dan­ger­ing the wel­fare of a mi­nor.

As part of an agree­ment in Novem­ber 2017, when she pleaded guilty, she was re­quired “to tes­tify truth­fully in the trial of Jonathan Wel­born.”

She re­ceived a sen­tence of 72 months pro­ba­tion and is re­quired to at­tend par­ent­ing classes and men­tal health coun­sel­ing.

“I felt like I failed as a mother,” she said dur­ing her tes­ti­mony Tues­day. “I could have just been a bet­ter mom … maybe the sit­u­a­tion could have been dif­fer­ent.”

In Wel­born’s ac­count of the day, he said the fam­ily stopped at a res­i­dence on Arkansas 298.

“I had a re­ally bad feel­ing about it,” Wel­born said while ex­plain­ing that the de­tour was Hairston’s idea.

While Hairston and Jerico Cantrell were in­side the home play­ing pool, Wel­born said he was sit­ting in the ve­hi­cle with the chil­dren. He told the jury what he was think­ing at the time.

“Is she not think­ing about us? Is she not think­ing about the ba­bies?” he tes­ti­fied.

He ex­plained that he went from the ve­hi­cle to the res­i­dence twice. While in­side the house at one point, Wel­born smoked metham­phetamine, he tes­ti­fied.

“They passed the pipe to me and I hit it,” he said, adding that Cantrell and the owner of the res­i­dence were smoke metham­phetamine.

Even­tu­ally when he went back to the ve­hi­cle, he no­ticed that Sophia had wo­ken up. He told the jury he took her out of her car seat and sat her in his lap while she was eat­ing cheese and play­ing. He later re­turned to the house to re­trieve Hairston’s phone and at­tempted to contact some­one in hopes that she would pick up the chil­dren. He told the jury he was not com­fort­able driv­ing since he had taken a cou­ple sips of al­co­hol at the swim­ming hole and smoked metham­phetamine at the res­i­dence.

Be­cause he did not have any cell­phone re­cep­tion, he de­cided to move the ve­hi­cle to send the mes­sage.

He tes­ti­fied that he put the ve­hi­cle in re­verse and started back­ing up when he saw Cantrell out­side yelling for him to get out of the truck.

As he con­tin­ued back­ing up with Sophia in his lap, he said he saw Cantrell “com­ing at me” and ducked. At this point, he pressed the ac­cel­er­a­tor of the ve­hi­cle. Wel­born tes­ti­fied that Cantrell was hang­ing onto the ve­hi­cle un­til it struck a barbed wire fence.

When the ve­hi­cle struck a tree, it died, ac­cord­ing to the de­fen­dant. Wel­born told the jury he tried to jam the gears to stop the truck but was un­suc­cess­ful.

“Be­fore I know it, I go into a pond. I start sinking with my kids,” he said. “I look down and see my lit­tle boy go­ing un­der in a sinking truck,” Wel­born tes­ti­fied.

He told the jury he threw Sophia to­ward the shore, along with at­tempt­ing to un­buckle Zaine’s car seat, but was un­suc­cess­ful.

“I think I tried to run and get help. It’s kind of a blur,” he said.

Once he re­turned to the res­i­dence he gave Hairston a kiss and froze. Even­tu­ally, while search­ing for the truck, he jumped in the pond and found the truck door “That’s when every­thing hit me,” he told the jury.

Wel­born tes­ti­fied that he was pray­ing to God “for­give me for hav­ing my kids at that place.”

Wel­born also told the jury about his dis­abil­ity as well as his “con­stant strug­gle” with drug abuse.

Some of what Wel­born told the jury did not match what oth­ers had said dur­ing tes­ti­mony or what Wel­born had told po­lice. Mark Hamp­ton, who was serv­ing as Wel­born’s le­gal coun­sel, told mem­bers of the jury he was “sur­prised about my client’s be­hav­ior.”

As Wel­born told his side of the story, many ju­rors, as well as fam­ily mem­bers in the gallery, be­came quite emo­tional.

“We — of­fi­cers of the court, court per­son­nel, prose­cut­ing and de­fense at­tor­neys — some times get a lit­tle hard­ened to things, but we never do get used to cases like this,” Judge Gr­isham Phillips told the jury at the con­clu­sion of the trial.

JOSH BRIGGS/THE Sa­line Courier

Jonathan Wel­born, 32, is es­corted from the Sa­line County Court­house on Thurs­day af­ter be­ing sen­tenced to 52 years in the Arkansas De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tion for the 2017 drown­ing deaths of his daugh­ter and son. A jury found Wel­born guilty of neg­li­gent homi­cide, end­ing the three-day trial.

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