A Riverside County jury on Thursday convicted professional skateboarder Neil Heddings of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his 2-year-old son, Marcus, from head injuries inflicted in 2002 by his girlfriend.
The jury found his girlfriend, Christine "Pinky" Rams, guilty of second-degree murder.
"I'm very pleased with the verdicts, especially with respect toward Miss Rams, because our theory was that she was the one who assaulted and murdered this little child," said Kelly Hansen, the Riverside County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the couple. "The jury held her responsible today."
Hansen said jurors "interpreted that Mr. Heddings should have known his son was being beat up by Miss Rams. He was Marcus' last hope, and he failed his son."
Heddings awoke Nov. 23 to discover Marcus' lifeless body in bed in their home in San Jacinto. He called 911, and police responded to find Heddings rocking the deceased boy in his arms. The couple were arrested in March 2003 after a lengthy investigation found the cause of death to be abusive head trauma.
Heddings had a reputation among skateboarders as a master of plywood bowls and concrete ramps and made a living helping skate companies market their equipment. He had started a skating gear company just months before Marcus died.
Heddings' defense got financial support from fans and skating gear companies. Vans Inc., the shoe company, contributed $1,000 to his defense fund, and Savier, a former Nike subsidiary, staged a fundraiser at its skating warehouse in Portland, Ore.
"He'll pay the price for his dead child," said Jake Phelps, editor of skateboarding's Thrasher magazine. But "after he gets out of jail and goes to his mother's house to think about his life, he's going to skate again."
Heddings, 31, could face an eight-year prison term when he returns to Riverside County Superior Court for sentencing Jan. 13. Rams, 26, could be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
During the trial, witnesses testified that the boy had a black eye, scratches on his thigh and a bruise on his back in the days before his death.
A Riverside County coroner's forensic pathologist testified that Marcus sustained fatal blows to his head within 48 hours of his death.
Rams declined to testify, but Heddings took the stand and admitted that his girlfriend wanted to leave their home before he called 911 on the morning Marcus was found dead.
Heddings also tried to explain why Rams told him during a taped conversation in a police car: "Don't turn on me." He said, "It was obvious police were trying to turn us against each other. There was no reason for her to say that, other than fear."
No one witnessed Marcus being physically abused by Rams, but witnesses described her verbal abuse of the boy. Heddings testified that Marcus was holding his head, saying "Oww," after Rams bathed him about 11 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2002. Marcus fell asleep at 4:30 p.m. that day and Heddings found him dead the next morning.
The jury deliberated for less than eight hours Wednesday and Thursday after the two-week trial.
In finding Heddings guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the jury determined that he engaged in a dangerous or deadly act without malice, the prosecutor said. They had been charged with first-degree murder.
Heddings dropped his head as the verdicts were read. His attorney, Jeff Zimel, said Heddings' "emotions were guided by hearing [Rams'] verdict." Rams showed no obvious emotion and was "a little numb," her attorney said.
Heddings' mother, Shirley Bookey, sobbed as she walked quickly outside of the courtroom. "I know I'm biased, but I know in my heart Neil didn't do anything wrong," Bookey said. "It's devastating. I wasn't expecting this. I feel like my son died. It's like someone has hit me in the face."
With nearly two years and eight months of jail time already served, Heddings could be released from custody by the end of 2008, a Riverside County district attorney's spokeswoman said.
"This case has been a very tough, emotional experience," prosecutor Hansen said after the verdict. "My investigator and I never met Marcus, but we both grew to love him, and the jurors took care of him today."