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Fired U.S. executive pleads guilty to assaulting 19-month-old baby

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A man accused of slapping a crying toddler on an airplane and using a racial slur pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge of assault.

Former aerospace executive Joe Rickey Hundley, 61, was accused of striking a 19-month-old boy in the face on board a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta on February 8.

In March, Hundley, who lives in North Carolina, entered a plea of not guilty but changed his plea on Wednesday.

In exchange for the guilty plea, federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of six months behind bars for Hundley, although the judge in the case could impose up to a year, according to his plea agreement.

Sentencing has been scheduled for January 6.

Hundley's attorney, Marcia Shein, told reporters on Wednesday that during the slapping incident, her client was flying to Atlanta to remove his dying son from life support after an insulin overdose and was emotionally distraught.

Hundley had not slept in the previous 24 hours, she said.

"He lost his cool," Shein said. "He never meant to hurt the child."

The boy's mother, who was seated with her son on the airplane, said in interviews that the child was crying as the plane descended.

In March, Shein conceded that her client used a racial slur when the child started crying.

The baby is black and his adoptive mother, Jessica Bennett of Minneapolis, is white. Hundley also is white.

In media interviews, the child's mother has said Hundley was belligerent and seemed intoxicated during the flight. During the guilty plea on Wednesday, Hundley said he has not had a drink since last February and has attended frequent meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Hundley was fired from his executive position at AGC Aerospace & Defense after the slapping incident, his attorney said. The Oklahoma City-based military technology company issued a statement describing the executive's behavior as "offensive and disturbing."

Hundley's son, whose age was not given, died the day after the flight, Shein said.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Sandra Maler)

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