Merrillville man acquitted at trial for beating boy, 11, to get confession in baby’s death

Robert T. Hughes and Erin Murray left their 4-month-old son Burnette in her 11-year-old son’s care, court documents alleged.

If the kid watched the baby overnight, Murray let him play X-Box. That night, when Burnette cried, the other boy took him from the baby swing. He tried to feed him a bottle, before he put the baby on his chest on the sofa.

At some point, the boy fell asleep, rolled onto the baby — smothering him.

A month after that calamity, Hughes called Indiana Department of Child Services investigator Elena Makarenko, saying he got a recorded confession from the older boy. Police said he beat the kid in a garage.

A jury disagreed.

They acquitting Hughes, 52, on all counts Wednesday – deliberating for about five hours after a three-day trial.

He was charged on Dec. 14, 2020 with neglect of a dependent resulting in death, a Level 1 felony; neglect of a dependent resulting in bodily injury, a Level 5 felony; and battery resulting in bodily injury to a person under 14, a Level 5 felony. He pleaded not guilty.

For now, court records show Murray’s trial is set to start July 22. She is charged with neglect of a dependent resulting in death, a level 1 felony, and neglect of a dependent resulting in bodily injury, a level 5 felony.

Deputy Prosecutor Keith Anderson said Tuesday in opening arguments Hughes was neglectful by leaving a premature baby that just got home from the neonatal intensive care unit in the hands of another child.

Hughes compounded the situation by later beating the older boy, Anderson said.

Defense lawyer Russell Brown argued the baby’s death was a “tragic accident.” The question for jurors was if Hughes “knowingly” placed the infant in danger, he said.

On Wednesday, Merrillville Police Det. Matthew Paunicka, the lead investigator, testified that he first thought it was a “tragic accident,” too, but expanded the case after Makarenko heard the recording.

The family’s dynamic was “very strange” and “neglectful,” he said.

On cross-examination, Paunicka told Brown he was relying on Hughes to voluntarily turn over the recording to DCS. That never happened. He didn’t have enough information to subpoena for it.

Later, during written jury questions, when one asked if he personally heard the recording, Paunicka said no.

Brown also asked Paunicka if he went back to Hughes’ home after the baby’s death — for crime scene pictures, for example, like a ladder or stairs in the garage that would back up the older boy’s account of getting beaten there.

The detective said no, it wasn’t a “fresh” crime scene by that point, things could have been moved, and he believed going back would not have helped the investigation.

The Lake County Coroner’s Office said the baby’s cause of death was asphyxia (suffocation), due to overlay. The manner of death was ruled an accident.

Merrillville Police responded at 8:35 p.m. Aug. 9, 2020 to Hughes’ home on the 6100 block of Pennsylvania Street. The baby was lying on the floor, court records show.

He was already cold to the touch. Paramedics told Hughes and Murray there was nothing they could do. The child was born at 28 weeks and got home about a month earlier from the NICU.

Murray told Indiana Department of Child Services investigator India Davies that when she woke up to check the baby in a swing, the older boy, 11, was “panicking,” documents show.

The boy was “frightened” of Hughes, who he said was Murray’s fiancé, court documents show. Since the baby’s death, Hughes “blamed” and was “always watching” him. It was very hard for the boy to be at home, he told investigators.

He told investigators Hughes and Murray left him to watch the baby before. During times he couldn’t get the baby to stop crying, the couple would scream at him and tell him to make a bottle. They never came upstairs to check on the baby, he alleged.

The older boy told Makarenko on Sept. 10, 2020 that Hughes and Murray questioned him in the garage about two weeks earlier. The boy said that he had smothered baby’s mouth with his hand “one time” for a “few seconds” to try to get him to stop crying. The baby was still alive and breathing, he said, according to court documents.

Lawyers said Wednesday, the boy testified that happened the night before the baby died.

His sister told investigators the boy volunteered some nights to play video games, but it quickly became his responsibility. Caring for the baby shouldn’t have been on them, she said.

Hughes called DCS on Sept. 10, 2020 with several tape recordings. The last one was “over an hour” where a case worker heard “smacking,” “punching,” “crying,” and “screaming.”

The boy later said Hughes dragged him by the hair to the garage for two hours where he beat him in the face and abdomen. “Rob” then threw him across the garage. The boy testified Tuesday afternoon that he hit a ladder and the stairs, according to lawyers.

Court documents state a doctor later diagnosed the boy with a concussion and noticed a two-week-old bruise on his right thigh. When a DCS caseworker served the custody papers to remove the older boy from the home, Murray and the boy got into a screaming match. Murray said Hughes didn’t mean to hurt the boy and she tried to step in.

In the garage, Hughes demanded the boy admit he did it — at one point going to get a kitchen knife, telling the boy he could kill him if he wanted, court documents state.

Murray only intervened at the end.

“Leave him alone, he’s just a kid,” she said.