Daycare owner tries to change guilty plea for killing baby

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James Nemeth

SAN DIEGO — The former operator of a Clairemont daycare facility, who pleaded guilty to shaking an 11-month-old boy, resulting in the child’s death, and hitting two of his own children, told a judge Wednesday that he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea because his trial attorney threatened and misled him.

James Patrick Nemeth, 39, pleaded guilty in January to voluntary manslaughter and child abuse and agreed to a sentence of 29 years and eight months in prison, of which he would serve about 24 years. Nemeth was facing two life terms behind bars if convicted at trial.

Nemeth made a motion to withdraw his plea and Judge Joan Weber appointed a separate attorney, Kevin Haughton, to explore whether the defendant’s motion had any merit.

When Haughton found no legal grounds to withdraw the plea, Nemeth, who is now representing himself, pursued the withdrawal motion on his own.

Nemeth’s trial attorney, Albert Arena, testified today that Nemeth wanted to plead guilty early in the case and instructed Arena to approach prosecutor Nicole Rooney with an offer.

When the defense offer was rejected, Arena said he prepared for trial until Rooney made an offer on the eve of trial that would require Nemeth to admit to causing the May 2012 death of Louis Oliver and to choking two of his sons, hitting them with a belt and punching one of them in the stomach.

Arena said he met with Nemeth and told him to think about it, but Nemeth said, “I don’t need to think about it. I want the deal.”

Arena denied offering Nemeth anything that he wasn’t entitled to in the plea bargain.

According to evidence presented at his preliminary hearing last year, Nemeth was alone with Louis Oliver for about an hour the afternoon of May 23, 2012.

A San Diego police detective testified that Nemeth said he woke the child from a nap and found him to be a “little limp,” then put him in a car seat while he tended to other children. Nemeth told investigators that when he turned his attention back to Louis, he found him unresponsive and not breathing.

Rooney said Nemeth lied about when he called 911, dialing the emergency number only after he talked on the phone with his mother for four minutes.

The toddler was pronounced dead the next morning. Doctors testified that he had severe retinal hemorrhages and suffered non-accidental trauma.

Rooney said the defendant shook Louis about eight days before fatally injuring him, but the child survived that shaking.

Another San Diego police detective testified that Nemeth’s adult daughter told investigators that her father had a temper and yelled at children at his daycare facility, where she also worked. She told police that her father would become frustrated when babies cried, the detective said.

A former employee told authorities that she called Child Protective Services after seeing Nemeth push a boy down a hallway and press the boy’s nose against a wall, a district attorney’s investigator testified.

Testimony in the plea withdrawal motion is expected to wrap up on Thursday.

If the motion is denied, sentencing could follow.

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