Christina Moran is haunted by a day in 2014 when her 16-month-old son lay on her stomach at a hospital, shaking and crying from the pain of second-, third- and fourth-degree burns he had suffered at the hands of her ex-boyfriend.
“When I met Ashton, I fell head over heels for him,” Moran said Wednesday prior to the sentencing of her former beau, Kenneth Ashton Preston, 25, of Biloxi. “I trusted him with my son.”
When she headed to work the morning of June 16, 2014, she said Preston asked her if he could care for her toddler. But when she returned, she said, she learned her son had been immersed in such hot water it burned his skin to the point of peeling. Some of the burns were so severe the child needed skin grafts at a Jackson burn center, Assistant District Patti Simpson said.
On Tuesday, Preston entered an Alford plea to felony child abuse, meaning he did not admit guilt but accepted there was enough evidence to convict him of the crime. Judge Roger Clark imposed a stiffer sentence for Preston than he originally planned, he said, because “I don’t know if there is any true remorse.”
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The judge heard from Moran and several others, including Preston and Preston’s mother and stepfather, prior to sentencing him to 20 years in prison, with 10 1/2 years suspended and 9 1/2 years to serve along with five years of post-release supervision. In addition, the judge fined him $3,000 and ordered him to pay $1,000 to the Mississippi Children’s Trust Fund.
Her son’s cries still echo in Moran’s ears.
“To see a normally healthy, happy, vibrant baby in Children’s Hospital in Jackson, not being able to move because of the pain,” she said, “it crushed my heart. I prayed every single day I could take his pain away.”
Her son, she said, has suffered emotionally and physically.
“He only trusts my family,” she said. “He will only stay with me, my parents or my sister. He never wants to leave my side. If he doesn’t hear me for a long period of time in our house, he will have a severe panic attack and start screaming for me. He hyperventilates every morning before going to preschool. He doesn’t want to leave me.
“It is hard for me to leave him, knowing that something could possibly happen to him. How am I supposed to explain this to him when he gets older?”
Preston attempted to express remorse for what he’d done, but the judge wasn’t buying it. Preston said he hadn’t been the same since the “accident.” He repeatedly refers to the injuries as accidental but says he takes full responsibility for what happened.
“I never did anything to intentionally harm that child,” he said. “I love that child. I’m not a monster. I know it looks bad. It’s terrible, but I know I’m a good father. I didn’t do this intentionally.” He also said he had a bad prescription-drug habit at the time and was making a lot of wrong decisions.
“I was supposed to take care of him,” he said. “I was supposed to keep him out of harm’s way. I wish there was something I could do. I know there is not.”
Preston’s mother and stepfather said Preston was good father to his other child, even acting as a baseball and soccer coach for his son’s team. They said he would never harm a child intentionally.
An investigation was opened after the toddler ended up at an emergency room and hospital personnel called Long Beach police.
Police said Preston scalded the child at the boy’s mother’s home on 28th Street in Long Beach. They arrested Preston at his home on Kirkwood Drive in Biloxi.
The felony child-abuse arrest was not his first.
On June 8, 2012, Biloxi police had arrested him in a felony child-abuse charge regarding a different child. A Harrison grand jury, however, found insufficient evidence to indict him. That child’s family attended Preston’s sentencing to show support for the burned child’s family.
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