Foster father denies shaking toddler

On trial for the boy’s death, he calls a taped admission misleading.
Friday, November 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:11 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

LINN — A foster father accused of murder testified Thursday he never abused his foster son and does not believe he did anything to cause the brain damage that allegedly killed the boy.

Speaking softly to jurors, John Wesley Dilley said a police officer put words into his mouth during a videotaped interview, during which Dilley acknowledged shaking 2-year-old Dominic James on several occasions.

Dilley, 36, of Willard, has pleaded innocent to charges of murder, assault and child abuse. After Dilley gave roughly two hours of testimony, his defense attorneys rested their cast without calling any other witnesses. Closing statements in the trial are expected Friday.

Dominic’s death prompted three government reviews of the state’s child abuse and neglect system, a restructuring of the Missouri Department of Social Services and passage of a bill overhauling the state’s foster care system. Gov. Bob Holden vetoed the legislation, saying parts of it were misguided.

Dilley’s testimony came shortly after jurors watched the videotape and prosecutors rested their case. When asked by a prosecutor about his statement on the tape, Dilley said, “I was using his words — he called it shaking. . . . I turned him.”

Dilley said he wished he had asked for a lawyer during the police interview, but thought he would only be helping authorities figure out what had happened to the toddler.

In the several-hour long police interview, Dilley repeatedly said he didn’t do anything wrong.

But Lt. Jim Arnott of the Greene County sheriff’s office insisted that medical evidence proved otherwise and kept pressing him for more specifics on what happened in August 2002 when Dominic was twice rushed to the hospital and eventually died.

At one point in the interview, Arnott pounded the interview table and moved closer to Dilley, saying “I want an explanation and I’m not going to tolerate what you’re telling me. I know what you did. You picked him up and shook him.”

Dilley was home alone with Dominic and his own 2-year-old son on both occasions when Dominic was injured. A medical examiner had testified that Dominic died of a head injury caused by violent shaking or a direct impact to the head.

Eventually, Dilley explained in the interview that on Aug. 10 Dominic had nearly fallen asleep at the dinner table and became fussy when he carried the boy to bed. That’s when Dilley said he turned the boy’s head.

“I never really shook him like this,” Dilley said moving his hands forward and backward. “I have shaken him from side to side, trying to turn his head to get his attention when I was talking to him. I didn’t think I was doing it too hard.”

Dilley said he had done a similar thing on two previous occasions to get Dominic’s attention. After further questioning about what Dilley believed happened to Dominic, he responded, “I guess maybe I shook him too hard.”

Soon thereafter, Dilley began to cry during the interview.

In the courtroom Thursday, Dilley remained still and silent as he watched his videotaped statement. The boy’s biological father, Sidney James, got up and left the courtroom in the middle of the interview.

On Aug. 18, Dilley said in the videotaped interview, Dominic had vomited at the dinner table, and he carried the boy to the bathtub. Dilley said he placed a towel on the top of Dominic’s head and used both hands to dry his hair, again demonstrating a twisting motion.

“When I was drying his hair, he went limp,” Dilley said.

Defense attorneys had unsuccessfully asked the judge to prohibit Dilley’s statement from being used at trial. They contend Dilley was coerced into his words while trying to be helpful.

John and Jennifer Dilley were brought to the sheriff’s office late on the night of Aug. 19 — two days before Dominic died — for what law officers described as routine questioning.

Arnott spent at least the first 15 minutes explaining that he wanted to help Dilley and just needed to know what happened.

At one point, Arnott said, “Nobody’s going to hold you accountable if you made a mistake, did something you shouldn’t have.”

The second-degree murder charge Dilley faces is punishable by 10 years to life in prison if convicted. The assault and child abuse charges also are felonies with similar or slightly shorter sentences.

The Dilleys were providing care for Dominic after he had been removed June 18, 2002, from the home of his mother after a domestic dispute with his father.

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