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After 5 hours of deliberation, jury finds Sweet Home man not guilty in choking incident

A jury on Friday found a Sweet Home man not guilty of charges stemming from a choking incident with an Adair Village infant more than a year ago.

After five hours of deliberation, a Benton County jury found Michael Henthorne, 20, not guilty on all counts. Henthorne, dressed in a light-blue button-down shirt and khakis, wiped at his eyes with his shirt-sleeves as the jury left the courtroom.

Henthorne, 20, was living with his girlfriend in Adair Village in January 2008 when police accused him of stuffing a paper napkin in the mouth and throat of his girlfriend's infant son, who was then 3 months old.

Henthorne was charged with multiple counts of assault and criminal mistreatment. One count of tampering with physical evidence was dismissed before the trial began.

Payton, the son of Vanessa Morris, had injuries to his esophagus and vocal cords, and was taken to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, where the boy's esophagus required surgery to fix a tear in his chest cavity.

Although Henthorne wasn't the biological father, his attorney, Nicolas Ortiz, stressed in closing arguments that Henthorne had assumed the role of a parent with the child. Henthorne was alone with the baby and called 911 to report that the child was choking on a napkin.

Ortiz described Henthorne as being "frantic" after the napkin was in the baby's throat and said repeated swipes with a finger might have caused some injury, though likely not the tear in the baby's esophagus.

"Mr. Henthorne was acting like someone who was responsible for an injury, that much he was aware of, and hoping Payton was all right," Ortiz told the jury.

The actual tear, he suggested, may have come from medical personnel, who placed suction and breathing tubes down the baby's throat when treating his injuries.

Prosecutor Karen Stanley said Henthorne initially reported that he was wiping drool or spit-up from the baby's mouth, and that the infant woke up, was startled and sucked in the napkin. The prosecutor said that Henthorne kept changing his story when told by medical personnel that it was implausible.

But Ortiz countered that detectives were predisposed that Henthorne's actions had caused the baby's injuries and didn't spend enough time investigating other possibilities.

Matt Neznanski can be reached at matt.neznanski@lee.net or 758-9518 .

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