Jesus Cornelio guilty plea in death of toddler touted as triumph of direct file

The case against Jesus Cornelio, seventeen, who allegedly caused his toddler cousin's death by shoving him while Facebooking, sparked controversy after he was charged as an adult using a method the Colorado legislature was trying to reform. That bill is now law, but Weld County DA Ken Buck is crediting his approach with tailoring appropriate punishment for Cornelio, who's now pleaded guilty.

As we reported in April, Cornelio reportedly had a previous gang affiliation, albeit one that Buck didn't consider active. Hence, his past wasn't a factor in the charges against him -- ones related to his actions on March 22, when he was put in charge of watching Jose Angel Cornelio-Espinosa, his two-year-old cousin, and a four-month-old nephew.

At a Weld County Courthouse rally, Cornelio's father, Martin said Jesus had to be convinced to babysit Jose, who was said to be "rowdy." Whether he was experienced at this task is a matter of debate. But whatever the case, the chore ended in tragedy, with the toddler being rushed to an area hospital in dire condition from a head injury and passing away at a different facility after suffering cardiac arrest two days later.

What happened? According to an arrest affidavit cited by the Greeley Tribune, Cornelio offered several variations on his account. First, the document quotes him as saying Jose was out of sight when he fell from the couch and wound up on the floor, face down. The second version was similar, but he added that he'd moved a coffee table into another room for safety's sake before anything went awry. Then he allegedly said he'd been in the kitchen when he watched the boy tumble off the couch and strike the coffee table's leg.

Finally, Cornelio told the story prosecutors believe is the real one: When Jose grabbed for the teen's cellphone while he was checking Facebook, he shoved him in the chest, causing the child to smack his head. At that point, Cornelio apparently began shaking the toddler in an attempt to revive him, but Jose began vomiting before becoming unresponsive. This reaction inspired him to move the coffee table out of the room (see story two) before calling for help, the affidavit says.

In talking about his decision to charge Cornelio as an adult, DA Buck hinted to the Tribune that his age (just one month shy of eighteen) may have been a factor. But the debate in the legal community centered on Buck's use of direct file, which Alan Prendergast described in a March post as a procedure that allows district attorneys to prosecute fourteen-to-seventeen year olds in adult court without a judicial hearing. Prendergast pointed out that Colorado is one of only four states that allowed DAs such sweeping authority, and a report from the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition argued that the technique was being abused.

The CJDC found that direct file is "often employed in mid-range felony cases against teens who have no prior criminal record -- and disproportionately in cases involving defendants of color," Prendergast wrote. "And in the vast majority of those cases, the juveniles never get their case heard by a judge and jury; a whopping 95 percent of direct-file cases result in plea bargains."

Page down to continue reading about the Jesus Cornelio case. Governor John Hickenlooper apparently reached the same conclusion. Just two days after our post on the Cornelio case, he signed House Bill 1271, which prevents DAs from hitting juvies with adult charges on many felonies in the low- and mid-ranges. It also bumps up the direct-filing starting point from fourteen to sixteen.

Given Cornelio's age and the severity of the crime with which he was charged (child abuse resulting in death, a class-two felony), Buck probably would have been able to direct file against him even if HB 1271 had been law circa March. But he still took the opportunity to tout the procedure in a release about Cornelio's guilty plea, for which he's expected to receive a suspended sentence of eighteen years, contingent on his successful completion of six years in the Youth Offender System.

According to Buck, direct-filing against Cornelio as an adult provided him with the Youth Offender System option."This case is certainly a tragedy for Jose and his entire family," Buck said in a statement. "It also serves as an example of how filing adult charges against certain young offenders can result in sentencing options that are more appropriate and have greater chances of rehabilitation."

Interpretation: Buck sees the Cornelio outcome as an example of direct file at its best -- and one that may convince lawmakers who signed on to HB 1271 from tightening its restrictions at the next legislative session.

Look below to see a larger version of Corenlio's mug shot and a CBS4 report from April.

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More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Merhawi Ocbamichael charged as adult for aggravated robberies as direct file bill advances."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts