Snake expert says python was hungry before toddler attack

Sumter County case will go to jury Thursday

BUSHNELL, Fla. - Charles Darnell and his girlfriend Jaren Hale had nothing to say as they left the courtroom on the final day of testimony. When they come back Thursday, this case will likely go to the jury.

One of the final witnesses called was Eugene Bessette. He says he's been fascinated with snakes since he was a little boy. Bessette has a facility near Gainesville where he breeds thousands of snakes.

He says normally Burmese pythons, like the one that killed a Sumter County toddler, are not aggressive.

"What I said, counselor, is they are not labeled as a dangerous animal. Upon a chance encounter, you would find that the Burmese python would slither away, would not want confrontation.  It just wants to be left alone," said Bessette.

The Sumter County couple is facing 35 years in prison on charges of 3rd degree murder, manslaughter and child neglect.

On July 1, 2009 their pet python, Gypsy, escaped from an enclosure and strangled Hale's 2-year-old daughter Shaianna to death as she slept in her crib

Bessette was asked for his expert opinion on Gypsy's tank that only had a quilt for a lid.

"That particular item in the condition that it's in, with what it has on top of it, is totally, impossibly incapable of housing a Burmese python. It's impossible.  You could put fish in there if it doesn't leak," said Bessette.

The defense says it was normal for Gypsy to be out of her tank because she was like any other family pet. They say Hale and Darnell never expected the snake to attack.

But as a medical examiner testified, the python literally squeezed the life out of this little girl.

"Her cause of death was asphyxiation due to constriction by the snake," said Sumter Co. medical examiner, Dr. Wendy Lavezzi.

The prosecution says the python hadn't been fed for weeks and the reptile's hunger may have led it to little Shaianna's crib.

Bessette examined Gypsy after the attack and says the eight and a half foot snake was about half the size and weight normal for it's age.

"To be that length and to be so light, not having a lot of body mass to it. I'm not saying it's an animal that couldn't survive, but that would be very, very lean," said Bessette.

Among those in the courtroom a man who told me he is Shainna's biological father. But he wouldn't comment any further on this case. He did say he'd be here until a verdict is reached.

Closing arguments are set for Thursday morning in Bushnell.

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