PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — A jury found a man accused of killing an infant in 2020 not guilty.
Jacob Britton Emmendorfer’s trial ended Friday, Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said. He had been charged with open murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct and first-degree child abuse. The jury found him not guilty on all counts.
On Aug. 13, 2020, 14-month-old Meilani Hart died in the hospital after she was found unresponsive the day before at an apartment complex in Portage. Emmendorfer was arrested that December.
Getting said he is grateful for the work of the jury but is disappointed in the outcome.
“There was only ever one suspect in this case. We charged him with murder: The jury found him not guilty. That’s the end of this case,” Getting said. “This child’s killer was found not guilty.”
“…I feel horrible for this child’s mother, and for those persons that loved her,” he later said. “I know we did everything we could to see that the man who killed her was held accountable.”
Police at the time of Emmendorfer’s arrest said he was the child’s mother’s estranged boyfriend. Court documents say the two had been living together when Meilani Hart died.
Court documents say Emmendorfer and the infant’s mother, Angel Hart, got into an argument on Aug. 12. Angel Hart went outside, saying she was going to a friend’s house, but instead sat on a bench nearby.
The two continued to fight over Facebook Messenger.
Emmendorfer locked the doors to the house.
Angel Hart discovered the front door of the home had been unlocked about an hour later. When she went inside, she found Emmendorfer with the unresponsive infant.
The 14-month-old was brought to the hospital, where she died the next day.
Getting said Meilani Hart’s cause of death was a lacerated liver and other injuries. Her death was ruled a homicide by the Kalamazoo County Medical Examiner’s Office.
According to court documents, a forensic pathologist testified that Meilani Hart had suffered blunt-force trauma, asphyxiation and aggressive sexual penetration.
No one argued otherwise: the disagreement between the prosecution and defense was about when the assault occurred.
The expert testified it could have happened minutes, hours or days before her death.
“Ultimately, they did not find that there was evidence presented by the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Emmendorfer committed this offense. Essentially, this baby had a medical condition,” Emmendorfer’s defense attorney, Sarissa Montague, told News 8.
Hart’s family disagrees. Court documents say — and Hart’s aunt told News 8 — that he was alone in the apartment with the infant for 90 minutes before she lost consciousness.
“There’s plenty of evidence to show that he’s guilty. He was the only one in the apartment with her,” Savannah Hart, the infant’s aunt, said. “All of the evidence is plain as day, in front of your face. We watched it for a week. We had to look at photos from her autopsy, and the jury refused to see it because it was too horrific, and that was part of the evidence that they wouldn’t see. They wouldn’t look at it.”
Defense attorneys also argued the assault could have been from up to five different people who were around Meilani Hart during the days prior to her death.
Getting said this was a “very difficult case.”
“Anytime we’re dealing with a death of a child the … emotion and pressure that goes along with trying those cases, is difficult for all of the participants,” he said. “And the very brutal nature of the injuries in this case … made that even more.”
Savannah Hart said the 14-month-old had just started walking and saying her aunt’s name, and was “always happy, she was always smiling.”
”There’s no really easy way to heal from something like that. It feels like we lost her all over again yesterday,” Savannah Hart said. “It’s hard to believe that there’s a monster out there now that could possibly do that to another child.”