TWIN FALLS — A man charged with murdering his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son made the uncommon choice of taking the witness stand in his own trial this week, opening himself up to questions by his own attorney and a deputy prosecutor.
Speaking slowly and in a low voice, Brian James Wagner, 34, calmly answered every question posed to him, including the most important one.
“Did you do anything to Jeff (Singleton) to cause him any injury on October 31, 2014?” Wagner’s defense attorney, Doug Nelson, asked him.
“Absolutely not,” Wagner responded.
The jury agreed with Wagner, returning a not-guilty verdict Wednesday on a first-degree murder charge about 15 months after a grand jury indicted him for the death of Jeffrey Charles Singleton, the son of his former girlfriend whom Wagner said he considered like his own son.
“He wanted the jury to hear it from his own mouth that he did nothing to injure the child,” Nelson told the Times-News of his client’s decision to testify.
Prosecutors accused Wagner of inflicting a deadly blow to the back of Singleton’s head on Halloween 2014. They sought an indictment in October 2015, and Wagner’s trial began Jan. 18. After about three and a half days of testimony, the jury needed just three hours to acquit Wagner, an Air Force veteran who grew up in Buhl.
Singleton died Nov. 2, 2014, days after suffering a traumatic injury to his head that caused a skull fracture and brain swelling and ultimately led to his death.
Benicia Rush, Singleton’s mother, also took the stand during trial, as a witness for the prosecution. She testified in a strong, clear voice, except when talking about Singleton. Through tears, Rush told the jury the boy was 2 years, 3 months and 2 days old when she decided to take him off life support after it became clear he wouldn’t get better.
“I loved him unconditionally,” Rush said. Later, through more tears, she recounted how she held the toddler in her arms as he died.
Rush’s testimony was the emotional peak of the state’s case, which began with Twin Falls County Deputy Prosecutor Julie Sturgill telling the jury during her opening statement that Singleton’s injury could not have been caused by a fall from a couch, like Wagner told police.
“The evidence will prove that a fall from an 18-inch couch did not kill Jeffrey Singleton, but that Brian Wagner killed Jeff,” Sturgill told the jury.
Nelson’s opening statement presented an alternative theory.
“All the evidence will show one of two things happened,” Nelson said. “Either Brian Wagner intentionally bashed in the head of a child that he considered to be his own. Or, Brian Wagner witnessed the worst thing that anyone could witness — the accident of a child considered to be your own that results in that child’s eventual death.”
Nelson called just three defense witnesses, including his client. The first two were a forensic pathologist and a biomedical engineer specializing in accident recreations and pediatric head injuries. Both testified that the fall that Wagner described to police — Singleton was standing on the couch and fell directly on his head — could have caused the injury that killed him.
Then Wagner took the stand, explaining that he was babysitting Singleton while Rush was at work. He said Singleton was excited all night as trick-or-treaters came to the door, and while Wagner was trying to do homework on his computer, Singleton fell.
Nelson said his client was relieved to avoid prison, but overwhelmingly sad about the death of Singleton.
“He treated him as his own son,” Nelson said. “He was shocked that anybody thought it was anything but a tragic accident … It was the worst of the worst for him — first, a child he was responsible for dies in front of him, and then he’s prosecuted for something he didn’t do.”