Chrystal Dillon conviction overturned

BELPRE – The criminal convictions of a Belpre mother whose 2-year-old daughter died in a 2010 fire have been overturned by an appeals court.

It is a bittersweet victory, said Chrystal Dillon, 26, convicted in September 2011 of felony and misdemeanor child endangerment charges. She had already served the entirety of her six-month jail sentence in the Washington County Jail when the decision was handed down Tuesday.

While the decision does assert that Dillon was not guilty in relation to the death of young Bianca, it does little to restore any sense of normalcy to her life, said Dillon in an interview Friday.

“In a lot of ways, nothing has changed because the damage has already been done,” she said.

That damage started on Oct. 18, 2010, when a fire suddenly swept through a vacant residence next door to where Dillon lived with her fiance, James “Butch” Jackson II, 52.

Dillon’s son, Josh, now 6, and 2-year-old Bianca had wandered into the building while unsupervised, argued Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Rings, who tried Dillon’s and Jackson’s criminal cases. While Dillon’s son managed to escape, Bianca died of smoke inhalation.

Jackson and Dillon were tried separately on charges of third-degree felony child endangerment, third-degree felony involuntary manslaughter and first-degree misdemeanor child endangerment.

While a hung jury prevented Dillon from being convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Jackson was found guilty on all three counts, and is now a year into a 30-month prison sentence.

His case is also in the process of being appealed by Parkersburg attorney George Cosenza, said attorney Shawna Landaker, who represented Dillon during her criminal trial.

Two of the three Fourth District Court of Appeals judges who heard the appeal were in agreement that Dillon’s guilty convictions should be overturned on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Such appeals are not often successful, said Landaker.

Rings said he disagrees with the decision.

“The Court of Appeals commonly does not substitute their view for the view of the jury. This is the first time it’s ever happened in a case I handled,” said Rings.

The prosecution had argued that Jackson and Dillon were inattentive parents who left their children unattended for long periods of time. They had also argued that Dillon’s son had been able to access a lighter, thereby igniting the fire himself.

To support its case, the prosecution presented witnesses who indicated the family was getting monthly visits from children services caseworkers because of concerns about how the children were being watched.

Belpre Police Chief Ernie Clevenger also testified he had previously investigated fireworks being illegally set off near the residence. He said several cases of fireworks were found in the rubble of the fire.

Still, Rings said the prosecutor’s office does not plan on appealing the judgment because there was no constitutional grounds to appeal the new decision, a requirement to an appeal at that level.

While nothing can bring her daughter back, the decision is a small victory, conceded Dillon, who hopes the public perception of her will change.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m a perfect parent, but I would have died to save my daughter that day,” she said.

Several people at the scene of the fire had to restrain Dillon to keep her from entering the flaming building that day.

Still, Dillon was a target during her six months in jail, she said.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be labeled a ‘baby killer’ in jail,” she said.

One woman slammed Dillon’s head against a wall, causing her to need stitches, she said.

Even after her release, former friends and even strangers continue to villainize her, according to Dillon.

“I can’t even walk down the street without someone calling me a baby killer,” she said.

But Dillon said her main concern is getting her son back.

Six-year-old Josh was taken out of her custody the day after the fire. Now she is working at getting her life back together to win him back, something that was previously impossible because of her conviction.

“Every job interview I’ve been on they say ‘Oh, you’re on felony probation. We’ll call you,'” said Dillon.

Now she no longer has to answer affirmatively to that question, and hopes to secure a job that will move her one step closer to getting Josh back.

For now, she sees him on the weekends, and tries only to talk about the fire when he has questions about it.

“I don’t want to go traumatizing him more than he has been. Really this has been hardest for him. First he loses his sister, then his mom and dad,” she said.

Dillon said she is also looking forward to seeing Jackson again. The two have been engaged since before the fire, and for a time being were helping each other cope with the event through letters.

“The death of a child will either tear you apart or it will bring you closer and we stuck together the whole way through,” she said.

If Jackson successfully wins his appeal and Dillon her child custody case, Dillon predicts they will move elsewhere.

“It’s too hard. We did everything here as a family,” she said.

For now, Dillon is coping with life one day at a time, because her experience with the fire taught her that there are no promises for tomorrow, she said.

“I don’t know if things will ever be better. The battle will be every single day. They say that wounds heal, but they don’t,” she said.