The most mesmerizing sound Penny Stewart said she’s ever heard came from a heartbeat on an ultrasound.
The heartbeat belonged to the child she carried, Madison Stewart, “the greatest blessing God ever gave me,” Stewart said Monday in a Lancaster County courtroom.
Because of an ovarian disease that would make pregnancy difficult, doctors doubted Stewart would ever give birth. Her attempts failed. Then, after 13 hours of labor and a C-section Oct. 17, 2012, Madison Stewart was born.
Eleven months later, Madison was gone.
Her head was smashed against the floor. She suffered from a brain injury and broken bones. The man responsible for watching her – a veteran who served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and dated Penny Stewart for five months – was charged with homicide by child abuse.
Jeffery Todd Bradley, 28, on Monday pleaded guilty to inflicting the injuries that killed Madison Stewart last September. He will spend the next 32 years in prison, where he will undergo mental health counseling.
“You are responsible for your own actions,” Circuit Court Judge Brian Gibbons told Bradley. “Not Iraq. Not Afghanistan. ... We’re forgiven for our sins, but there are consequences for our actions.”
Bradley and Penny Stewart, who knew each other from high school, reconnected early last year when Penny was the mother of a 5-month-old and Bradley lived in a homeless shelter in Lexington County, said Julie Hall, the assistant Sixth Circuit solicitor. They moved into a mobile home on Hardin Strait Road in Chester County.
On Sept. 18, Bradley was to watch Madison while her mother worked. But he left the girl alone at home as he went to a house nearby for several hours, Hall said.
A neighbor went to check on Madison and found her wet but unharmed.
Bradley returned home at about 5:30 p.m. Two hours later, he sent a text message to Penny Stewart, telling her “something was wrong with the baby,” Hall said. Penny ordered him to call 911.
Bradley performed CPR on Madison for about 11 minutes, according to a recording of the 911 call he made, before the girl was taken by helicopter to Levine Children’s Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.
Bradley initially told police Madison had been electrocuted after chewing on a phone cord. He later told investigators she had fallen.
Finally, he told police that he grabbed the girl’s head and slammed her into the floor, leaving her with a fractured skull and brain and kidney injuries. Police charged Bradley with homicide by child abuse. While jailed without bond, he was placed on suicide watch.
Madison was declared brain dead on Sept. 20, when Penny Stewart made “the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my life,” she told the judge on Monday, and took her daughter off life support.
She gave Madison her last bath and brushed her hair one last time.
“Madison’s first cry was so beautiful,” Penny Stewart said. “Her infectious laugh warmed my heart daily for a short 11 months. Now, all I’m left with is a bunch of what if’s and what could have been’s and precious memories.”
“Madison was a happy, loving child,” said Sherry Burnette-Taylor, Madison’s grandmother. “Her laughter just made a person smile.”
That laughter was snuffed, she said, when “JT” left the girl with facial “bruises of his brutality.” She imagines in that moment her granddaughter looked up to Bradley “lovingly and for a gentle touch.”
“The only touch he gave her was cruel and deadly,” she said.
“For the rest of my life, I have to live with the regret of trusting JT with my angel,” Penny Stewart said. “He promised me the world” and “told me that he even wanted to adopt Madison.”
Now, “every part of me wanted to dig my child up,” she said. “I’ve never seen her walk by herself ... not even one birthday. Watching my mini-me grow was the most amazing time in my life.”
She asked Gibbons not to show any mercy on “someone who has shown no remorse for killing an innocent baby.”
But Bradley says he is remorseful. He met Madison when she was about 5 months old, he said, and was instantly “attached.” He even considered adopting the girl.
“No, she was not my biological daughter, but she may as well have been because I loved her so much,” he told Judge Gibbons.
A North Carolina native, Bradley graduated from York Comprehensive High School and enrolled in the Army in 2003. By 2005, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where his unit found a boy holding what they thought was an improvised explosive device, said Bradley’s attorney, Sixth Circuit Chief Public Defender Mike Lifsey. When the boy ignored repeated commands to drop the weapon, Bradley’s sergeant ordered him to shoot the boy. Bradley did.
They would later learn the boy was holding a radio.
“Those tours of duty profoundly affected this young man,” Lifsey said.
Dr. David Price, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Bradley, said, “We see a lot of returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.” Price cited authors who have examined the “psychological ramifications for teaching people to kill.”
“If you’re actually in combat, the question is not if you’ll get post-traumatic stress disorder or something similar, it’s a question of when,” Price said. “It’s different for different soldiers.”
Gibbons, the judge, told Bradley, “I appreciate your service; I appreciate your putting your life on the line for our country. But you’re still the one who made the decision to put your hands on this beautiful child and brutally assault her. It’s a senseless act, a horrible act. You’re going to have to live with it for the next 32 years.”
Bradley’s family declined to comment after the hearing.
Penny Stewart said after the sentencing, “There’s nothing (the judge) could have given him that would have brought my daughter back.” She said she did not know many of the details of Bradley’s past until they were disclosed in court.
“It still doesn’t give him an excuse for what he did to my baby,” she said in tears. “My daughter didn’t attack him.”