James R. Casteel, 29, was scheduled to go to trial on a first-degree murder charge on May 6. Instead, on Monday in a Sullivan County court, he entered an Alford plea to charges of second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.
Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Andrea Black says the case was difficult to investigate and prosecute due to the extended timelines between the abuse, the child’s death and the conclusion of multiple medical examinations.
Casteel’s charges stem from an incident in November 2014 on Riverside Avenue in Kingsport. According to the Kingsport Police Department, Casteel and a child had been living in a shed with no running water for approximately two weeks.
The KPD stated the baby’s mother, Amber N. Keys, was at the time jailed on unspecified charges, making Casteel the primary caregiver. Casteel was Keys’ boyfriend, but not the child’s biological father.
Casteel was reportedly awakened by the crying boy, who was 6 months old at the time. He changed the baby’s diaper and fed him, but when the crying continued, according to police, Casteel shook the boy and threw him on a bed. Casteel is accused of then going to sleep, leaving the child unattended.
Approximately 12 hours later, Casteel’s mother reportedly found the baby in the storage building, lethargic with eyes rolling in the back of his head. She called 911, and the child was transported to Holston Valley Medical Center. Later he was treated at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.
A month after the incident, Casteel was arrested and charged with aggravated child abuse. He has been jailed since that time on $75,000 bond.
The baby died in March 2015 at 10 months of age.
According to the Sullivan County District Attorney’s Office, an autopsy performed locally noted an “undetermined” cause of death. Skeptical of the results they received, prosecutors continued investigating the case while also seeking a second opinion from the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office.
In November 2016, that examination ruled the death a homicide, spurring Casteel’s indictment on a charge of first-degree murder.
By entering the Alford plea, Casteel does not admit guilt but concedes the evidence may net a conviction. For the abuse and death of the child, Casteel was sentenced to serve 20 years. He will get approximately three years credit for time already served in the Sullivan County jail.
A false reporting charge — for lying to investigators about what occurred — netted Casteel five years of supervised probation upon his release.