BLOOMINGTON — A judge acquitted Matthew Everly on Monday of felony charges accusing him of breaking his infant daughter's legs and arm.
The courtroom was packed when Judge Casey Costigan announced he found the 26-year-old father not guilty of seven felonies that could have sent the former minister to prison for more than 180 years, if convicted. The crowd later applauded the verdict in an emotional gathering outside the courtroom.
Costigan ruled the state's case based largely on circumstantial evidence did not provide sufficient proof that Everly caused the baby's injuries.
In his ruling, Costigan said the testimony and evidence presented during the four-day jury trial required him to guess or make assumptions about whether the father caused the injuries. The judge, a father of six, noted he has changed many diapers and listed several possibilities for how the baby may have been harmed, including during her transfer in and out of a car seat and having her clothes changed.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Costigan. Looking at myriad ways the baby may have been hurt amounts to guessing, he said, “and the law doesn’t allow me to guess.”
In a statement after the verdict, defense lawyer Scott Kording said, "Matt Everly is innocent of the charges brought against him, as we said from the very beginning. Today's court decision finding Matt not guilty of all 11 criminal charges is complete vindication for him and his family.
"The Everlys have been through a nightmare during the last seven months," Kording added. "Matt and his wife, Emily, plan to continue raising their young daughter, who is healthy and thriving in their care. Our team was honored to prepare his defense and work to clear Matt’s name."
Shawn Everly, the defendant's father, said in a statement: “We thank the Lord Jesus Christ for bringing Matt and Emily through this challenging and difficult time. We have believed in Matt’s innocence since the beginning, and today we find immense joy in the verdict of not guilty. We thank friends and family for their love, support, and prayers.”
State's Attorney Don Knapp said he had no comment at this time on the verdict.
The judge rejected arguments from Assistant State’s Attorney Erika Reynolds that “it’s unreasonable to think anyone else did this.” Other family members and visitors had access to the child after her birth, said the judge.
Reynolds pointed to Everly’s second police interview in which he said he may have applied too much pressure on the baby’s legs during a diaper change. The father was the only person to offer a possible explanation, said the prosecutor, because he knew he had harmed the baby.
Kording argued in his closing remarks that Bloomington police stopped far short of a complete investigation into the alleged child abuse by interviewing only Everly, his wife, Emily, and her mother. Police were aware that pediatric abuse specialist Dr. Channing Petrak believed the fractures could only be caused by a violent yanking or twisting motion, said Kording.
“What happened here is dangerous,” Kording said of the police probe.
In an emotional meeting with the Everly family and supporters, Kording said the defense will request an expungement of the charges as part of Everly’s effort to clear his name.
The lawyer said the Everlys will challenge an indicated finding of abuse filed by the Department of Children and Family Services. The finding is made after the state deems abuse claims to be credible and places a parent on a list of known abusers who may not work in certain professions.
Kording also said Everly intends to pursue a return to ministry. He was removed from his employment as associate pastor of worship at Eastview Christian Church after charges were filed in May.
Earlier Monday, Everly took the witness stand to deny prosecutors' claims that he broke the legs and an arm of his infant daughter.
The father recalled the first three weeks of his baby’s life after her birth on March 8.
Everly testified that he was responsible for about 80 percent of Olivia’s nighttime diaper changes. He denied the state’s theory that he injured the baby during a period of frustration and stress over his return to work and plans by the church to expand to a second location.
He said his daughter cried throughout diaper changes “from the moment she came into the world.”
Everly said his wife noticed slight swelling in the baby’s leg on March 22.
The swelling was not mentioned during a medical checkup the following day, said Everly.
Everly said he became concerned March 24 with redness and more swelling in the baby’s leg. The parents called the pediatrician and were directed to text photos of the leg to the on-call doctor.
“I was relieved. I was afraid something was very wrong with my daughter,” Everly said of the doctor’s orders to monitor the baby and bring her to the office the next week if she did not improve.
On March 26, the baby was taken to a Peoria hospital where the fractures were detected in X-rays.
Everly, of Bloomington, said he cooperated with police because “they were trying to figure out what happened to my baby and so was I.”
The first-time father said he did not consider his explanation to police an admission of harm. He said he "racked his brain" to come up with a potential cause of the injuries after police suggested that doctors would continue performing tests on the child until they had a reasonable explanation.
"They had already poked her enough," Everly said Monday.