- Joe Rickey Hundley was distraught over his gravely ill son during the flight, his attorney says
- Attorney acknowledges that her client used an epithet but denies he hit the child
- He entered a plea of not guilty to a charge of assaulting a minor
- Hundley is accused of slapping a crying 19-month-old on a Delta flight in February
An Idaho man accused of slapping a crying 19-month-old boy on a Delta flight pleaded not guilty in federal court Wednesday in Atlanta.
Joe Rickey Hundley is charged with assaulting a minor in connection with the incident last month. Accompanied by his attorney outside the courthouse, Hundley appeared solemn and looked toward the ground.
Before Hundley's court appearance, his attorney, Marcia Shein, said that he would be entering a plea of not guilty.
After the hearing, Shein issued a statement on Hundley's behalf, saying that the day before the flight on February 8, her client had learned that his son had overdosed on insulin and was in a coma on life support.
"Mr. Hundley had been up for 24 hours over this tragic news and was heading to Atlanta to decide, with his son's mother, if they should take him off life support as he had no brain activity. On the flight he was in distress, upset and grieving," Shein said. His son died the next day, she said.
According to court documents, the boy's mother, Jessica Bennett, and her son were seated in Row 28, Seat B on Delta Flight 721, which originated in Minneapolis.
She spent part of the flight in the rear of the plane to get away from Hundley, who she said smelled like alcohol and was slurring his speech, according to John Thompson, attorney for the child's family. In her statement Wednesday, Shein did not address whether Hundley was drunk.
As the plane began its descent into Atlanta, the boy began to cry because of the altitude change, and his mother tried to soothe him.
Hundley, who was seated next to the mother and son, allegedly told her to "shut that (N-word) baby up."
Hundley then turned around and slapped the child in the face with an open hand, which caused him to scream even louder, an FBI affidavit said.
The boy suffered a scratch below his right eye.
In her statement Wednesday, Shein acknowledged that Hundley "said something none should say even in their darkest moments" when the boy began crying and that he "deeply regrets saying those words." But she said that Hundley did not "strike the child and believes what happened to Mrs. Bennett's child was an accident."
Hundley "had paid a terrible price for his hurtful words but asks only that people understand that he was not doing well that night and spoke hurtful words he would have not otherwise have said," Shein said.