Defense attorneys for the Manassas man charged with involuntary manslaughter after he left his daughter in a hot van for seven hours told jurors yesterday that the toddler's death was a tragic accident, not a crime.
But Prince William County prosecutors argued that Kevin C. Kelly, 46, neglected 21-month-old Frances Kelly by stranding her in the family's van as it became blazingly hot May 29 -- while he went about family chores. Prosecutors said Kelly, a father of 13, never noticed she was gone.
"For seven hours, little Frances Kelly was not even missed," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Sandra Sylvester. "The person who is responsible for her death is that man -- her daddy, Kevin Kelly."
Kelly's trial began yesterday in Prince William County Circuit Court, almost six months after Frances was found dead of hyperthermia. She had been strapped in her car seat outside her family's home for most of the afternoon, left there after her father shuttled other children to and from school. Temperatures inside the van reached 120 degrees.
If convicted, Kelly faces a maximum of 15 years in prison on one charge of involuntary manslaughter and one charge of child neglect.
The case has gained notoriety in large part because of the family's strong connection to the community, particularly at All Saints Catholic Church. Kelly's supporters have been vocal in their criticism of the decision to prosecute a father who lost his youngest daughter.
Several of those supporters have been present at Kelly's court hearings, and a number of them attended the trial yesterday. Kelly and his wife, Mary, walked hand-in-hand through the courthouse yesterday, and she was often seen crying on his shoulder.
Along with the calls for leniency, however, have been indications that the household was out of control. Court documents show that the family's youngest children were increasingly in the care of the oldest, and Frances died while her mother and oldest sister were on a trip to Ireland. In addition, Kelly had lost track of his younger children on previous occasions, the court papers say.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed yesterday that Frances was left behind in the family's van, but the two sides took radically different views on the event. Carroll A. Weimer Jr., who heads Kelly's defense team, told jurors that Kelly entrusted Frances to his other children and never checked on her because he assumed she was being cared for.
"Kevin Kelly told the older children that he wanted them to get the younger children out of the van and settled in the house," Weimer told the jury of eight men and six women. Weimer said Kelly then dealt with household problems, took his son to soccer practice and later went to get dinner for the family in another car. "Tragically, by accident, Frances was left sleeping in the van," he said.
Prosecutors called four witnesses to testify about the discovery of Frances's body and displayed graphic photos of the toddler as she lay in the grass after one of her older brothers removed her from the van.
A couple out for an evening stroll had stopped when they realized the child could be in serious trouble. Joan McIver, a neighbor and member of the same church the Kellys attend, said she stood by the window so that when the toddler woke up, she wouldn't be scared.
"I thought the baby was sleeping. I bet they forgot the baby," McIver testified, adding that she later sought help and screamed for people nearby to call 911. After the baby was pulled from the van, she hugged one of Frances's older siblings. "All I could say was . . . 'Sweet Jesus, help us,' " she said.
McIver's husband, Brian, said he went to the Kellys' front door to get help and asked Anthony Kelly, then 17, to grab the van's keys. Brian McIver testified that Anthony looked panicked. "There was no hope," Brian McIver said. "When I noticed her face was purple, I realized there was nothing I could do."
Prosecutors said Kevin Kelly blamed Anthony for leaving the toddler in the van, and court documents and police accounts of previous incidents show that Anthony had been blamed in the past for allowing Frances to be unsupervised.
Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. has barred those previous incidents from the trial -- except for times when children were left in the van. But Alston said yesterday that such evidence might be allowed if Weimer continues to contend that Kelly left Frances in the care of his other children and calls the death an accident.
Kelly, dressed in a suit and tie, sat still for much of the testimony yesterday but covered his eyes several times as a photo of Frances's body was displayed for the jury on a television monitor. Kelly also occasionally wiped his eyes and buried his face in his hands as prosecutors played the 911 tape of people trying to help Frances.
The five-minute 911 recording included screams and cries in the background as an air-conditioning repairman spoke with a dispatcher. Michael Byrne, who was working at a house next door to the Kellys', testified that he had earlier seen Anthony and Kevin Kelly trying to fix a fence outside their home.
"She's already turned blue," Byrne is heard saying on the tape before handing the phone off to a neighbor. A woman is then heard saying: "We think she's been here a long time. She's hot because she's been in the car with the windows up. . . . She's in bad shape."
Kelly's defense team did not question any of the four witnesses called by prosecutors yesterday, saying it did not dispute the testimony. At one point, Weimer thanked Byrne for trying to save Frances's life.