Preface: Child Abuse: A Jury Foreman’s Perspective
We are just a couple of days away from April 1st or April Fool’s Day in some people’s minds. It is an anniversary for me, but not the kind I like to celebrate. It was on this date many years ago that I found myself on a criminal jury. Little did I know that I would be Jury Foreman seven days later. I had no clue that I was going to be sitting in judgment of a young mother who killed her child.
Most of you know that I tend to flood the electronic mail with as much uplifting information as I can – at least in my personal writings. I’ve been working hard to distribute more humor, because I think it is good to lighten up and not let my world or your world be overburdened with seriousness. Yet the jury and I pledged at the end of the trial that we would do what we could to cause the world to not forget a little girl named Gennifer Egans. We were determined to make every April 1 a day of reflection.
Child abuse is just about as ugly a subject as we can find in our society. Even since the trial, there have at least dozens of stories just as horrible presented in our local newspaper. I wrote a story about my experience and had hopes of getting it published in the Dallas Morning News. It got rejected because of its length, but it did get circulated around the state, ending up in some law classes. I do know that it got back to the prosecuting attorneys and even the judge presiding over the case.
The public servants and caregivers need our help. It is very hard to get a conviction in a child abuse case. The defense in our case tried everything they could to twist this case. A diligent paramedic ended up with the defense counsel trying to turn the table, suggesting he fell on the child in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The attorneys deal with hundreds of cases like this every year, with many juries letting the abusing adult go free because of the difficulty of a jury believing a parent could hurt a child. How anyone who works in Child Protective Services can get a good night’s sleep, knowing what they have witnessed on any given day, is amazing to me.
To the college students who might hear my words, I hope that some of you will find a professional role someday that will be a part of protecting defenseless children. To all of us, I hope that we will give praise to the Lord that have been provided a better life, that we are shielded from an incredible world that sometimes is a manifestation of the Satan’s greatest works. But let our prayers include those children that have no clue what people are talking about when we speak of angels protecting us, intervening for us, comforting us.
I am enclosing my reflection from that experience. Many of you have received this essay in the past as I try to send the message around regularly. However, it has been over a decade since I last raised the issue. I know that it is uncomfortable reading. But my fellow jurors promised each other that we would remember this life-changing event, perhaps in the hope that we would never get too comfortable with this sensitive subject.
What we did, we did out of duty during that long week. But we felt called to speak for Gennie Egans. We joined with the cadre of public servants who feel a duty to protect the defenseless, although we got no satisfaction from finding the mother guilty. April 1 is at my doorstep again. Neither I nor my fellow jurors intend to let this child be forgotten. God bless her. LFM.
Who Speaks for This Deceased Child?
By Lewis F. McLain, Jr.
I did not volunteer nor would I ever have volunteered for this burden of being a juror on a trial involving child abuse, which we later learned was murder. In fact, I was tempted to use a lame excuse like several other panelists who were put in the position of accepting our fate if we were selected. Somehow I knew I was going to be picked for the jury the minute I walked into the courtroom.
The way the story unfolded was interesting. We were told before the trial started that the charge was for injury to a child 14 years or younger. At first I only heard “14 years” and did not hear “or younger,” leaving me to think this woman being charged got into a fight with a teenager and blows were delivered. There were no opening arguments to give us an overview of the facts that were going to be presented. I’m not sure why, except that I realized later that it was probably greater assurance that we presumed this mother innocent until we heard the whole story.
But then the ugly story was revealed, all components not fully understood until after both sides rested their cases. This was about a child who had not reached 20 months of age, a great shock but not as shocking as when we learned that her weight averaged less than 1 pound for every month she had been on this earth. This child was born prematurely to a mother 21 years old. Even sadder, this child was the third child of four – the oldest being three years old and the youngest just a few months old.
The father of this child and the fourth child was the prosecution’s first witness, a father of eight children with five women. He had provided no assistance of any sort to this child nor to the fourth child. The woman’s first two children were obviously from another man, and there was never any mention of marriage involved with any of the four children. The first witness invoked some unintended sympathy for the defendant, but served a very important purpose – and that was to rule him out as a potential perpetrator and to establish the extreme dislike the father and mother of this deceased child had for each other – and the potential for this animosity to be transferred to the child. That alone was certainly not enough to sway us, but it was an important piece of the puzzle.
This child had been born prematurely, weighing only 2 pounds. She was not only small and fragile, making it only to 18 pounds in her short 596 days of life, but she was “slow” or “delayed” as the terms were used during the trial. These combined conditions, whether physical or mental or both were manifested in one of two major “misdeeds” in her life: she was slow to be potty trained in the view of the mother, and she was always wanting to be held. The fourth child, a newborn, apparently was the only privileged child to be allowed to wet her diaper as the first two children had been potty trained “before they were one year old” in the testimony of the mother.
The second misdeed of the child wanting to be held was told by neighbors and a day care worker as they described the mother rejecting the child’s motions to be held and the mother’s insistence that no one else hold the child. This rejection was rationalized by the mother as her way of making the child “catch up” with her older brother and sister and to be prepared to make it in this world.
The story that started out to be a 911 call for possible asthma was transformed to a diagnosis of “gross” internal bleeding suspected and discovered only after the child had gone into cardiopulmonary arrest and the observation of a distended stomach. There was a possibility but not a certainty that the child would have lived if the paramedics had been given a clue that this child had been beaten severely. They would have taken her to one of the best children’s hospitals in the world.
The attending physician in the hospital they did take her to would have started giving her blood immediately upon arrival. But only when fresh bruises appeared and announced the same message as the swelling stomach did any of the specialists (including the special team from the children’s hospital flown by helicopter) know that they were possibly dealing with child abuse. The mother had been quizzed but revealed only that the child, when called to come get a snack before bedtime, had become listless, slumped and had convulsion-like symptoms, including difficulty breathing.
Witnesses and evidence were introduced to compress the time frame between when the child could have sustained the injuries and her pronounced death. The last non-family person to see the mother and child was a ninth grade girl, an acquaintance who was at the one bedroom apartment to have the woman curl her hair. The little 18-month old child had wet her pants, was jerked by the arm, carried to the bathroom and hit extremely hard on the lower back as punishment. The ninth grader, a courageous and articulate witness, was very credible. No one was able to dispute that she was the only non-family person in the apartment within an hour or less of the call to 911.
The mother had been attending a beauty school while the four children were in a day care center – except the day of the child’s death the mother stayed home awaiting a phone call from a potential employer for a job in another field (even though she had Caller ID). A neighbor had taken her to pick up her children at the day care center in the afternoon when the mother learned that the child had wet her pants. The mother was heard saying, “You’re going to get it when we get home” and did not deny the words (only the tone) when she later took the stand.
When they arrived at the apartment, the 20-month-old child had to walk from the parking lot, located on the exterior of the apartment complex arranged generally in a square, to the apartment entrance located in the interior. The child stumbled and fell on a crack in the sidewalk. After being told by the neighboring friend that the child had tripped, the mother yelled for the child to “get your ass in this house.” The mother was then confronted by another neighbor observing the scene who told the mother to pick up her child. The mother fired back that the president of the United States can’t tell her what to do with her child.
Inside the apartment, the ninth grader heated a burrito for the children while the mother, over the course of the early evening, called the neighboring friend twice to ask about the neighbor’s 25-year-old brother. The mother had paged him twice, and he had not returned the call. It was apparent that this was yet another man in the mother’s life with whom she was either having a relationship or pursuing a relationship, and she was frustrated that the man had not called back.
After the spanking scene occurred, the ninth grader got her hair curled and then left the apartment. Nobody knows exactly what happened afterwards or just how it happened, we only know the results. Our first clue was from the attending physician who determined there was internal bleeding.
The real evidence came from the medical examiner. His testimony was extraordinary. The language was almost as graphic as the photographs from the autopsy. However, he was so good with his explanation and so clinical in his demeanor that it was as if I had personally snipped and scooped up the organs from the child myself without a queasy reaction. And I am an extremely queasy person.
If we had been told in advance what we were going to see, we would have spent hours of dread leading up to this moment: a liver lacerated in two places – big lacerations; a lacerated mesentery or shield attached to the intestines; and a bruised sigmoid colon, which is hard to do since this is the last section of the intestine that connects to the rectum. Ribs 10 and 11, the next to the last two lower ribs, were fractured.
The medical examiner stated with confidence that these kinds of damages could only have been inflicted by a blunt force delivered by either an automobile accident, a fall from a multi-story building or a hand, foot or other object delivered powerfully several times. The internal bleeding came from the liver, an organ which has a large volume of blood transported through it. The severity of the torn liver was such that the bleeding which preceding death could only have been from a few minutes to a couple of hours before death was pronounced at 10:41 p.m. The 911 call came around 8:30 p.m. The medical examiner’s official unequivocal conclusion: homicide.
The prosecution’s witnesses were almost flawless: their stories were consistent; the witnesses were all credible; the evidence was overwhelming. The defendant took the stand and offered contradictory testimony but was almost silly with her explanations – especially the one where she demonstrated the whack to the child’s behind that was witnessed by the ninth grader. Her example was a slap not much more than a slap at a mosquito on an arm. It was likely, though, that even the ninth grader probably did not witness the fatal blows that came sometime after the girl left the apartment.
Upon returning to the jury room for deliberation, a quick secret ballot was taken. Ten guilty ballots and two not sure. The discussion among the jurors was remarkable. The jurors were wonderfully fair people, already having demonstrated their goodness in the days before as you get hours to size up 11 others in a room with you through the exchange of conversation. There was a strong bias that this mother was innocent until the jury was shown otherwise. Allowing the story to unfold without knowledge of the details – even that there was a death involved – had made us weigh the cold evidence and draw a clear conclusion.
The two “not-sures” turned out to be precautionary, which I appreciated. Nobody believed the mother actually set out to kill the child, and there was no mention of hatred or disdain for the mother – but the results of the act were not questioned. A second vote made it unanimous. We were sure of our decision, but now the dread of sentencing was falling somberly across the room.
The punishment phase was left for us to mull over during a weekend, although the grandmother of the child took the stand to give testimony in support of probation. The sentence could be as little as probation and as long as 99 years. Oh, how unfair it is to place this burden on jurors. In just over 60 hours we had to decide a sentence yet we could not talk about it to anyone – just pray.
There were so many factors: this mother and the separation from her children; the safety of her children – a big factor; an even greater concern of mine was her future children who would have to be potty trained or may be “slow.” The defendant’s mother took the stand to talk about all of the family support that would be given to the defendant – should the defendant she get probation. But this was what bothered me the most.
Where was her mother when advice was needed on having sexual relationships with men who care nothing about the precious product? Where was her mother when she became involved with this irresponsible man who not only fathered the deceased child but the fourth child – even though it had to be clear to the defendant and her mother by then what the program was as far as this man was concerned?
If the defendant’s mother had failed her during her mid-teens, there was now a long and clear four year history of where this defendant’s life was heading. No grandfather of the deceased child surfaced in the trial, so one was left wondering about family support.
There was the concern about the cost of imprisonment for this mother. In fact, the staggering costs in a criminal court include a judge, a court coordinator, a court reporter, two bailiffs and the enormous facilities that serve these players. There were at least two and sometimes three district attorneys presenting this case and field investigators not seen. There were two court-appointed public defenders presenting the case and many people behind the scene.
This mother had been housed in a jail with a population of 10,000 inmates getting three meals every day and accommodations that come with enormous cost. The medical examiner and support staff are highly trained, expensive people. The child protective services personnel who supervised the remaining three children carry massive caseloads. The ambulance, hospital and police personnel that were involved in this case are all paid by us. The cost of the day care center that kept the mother’s children was some kind of government-funded program. There was grand jury time, and this petit jury put in at least 50 work days on this trial at a high cost through their employers or by loss of income for the self-employed.What were we to do?
Was there a chance that the other three children could be harmed if this mother lost her temper again? If she is capable of bearing children for 15 – 20 more years, how many more will she have who have to be potty trained – or worse, who may be born prematurely. Instead of being cradled and nurtured to healthy adulthood, would they be scolded and spanked into advancing their developmental clocks? Does confidence to make up a deficiency come from hugging a child to your bosom or from making an 18-pound child walk for great lengths and then get screamed at if she stumbles and falls?
Can’t kids just be kids for a few years? If they wet their pants or disturb a father watching a football game, do they deserve to die? If they are the center of a dispute between a man and a woman, should they be the ones to get executed? I don’t think so.
As a member of the jury that heard this case, child abuse came alive in a way that differed from my normal reaction. It has always been easy to just cringe and then go on when reading about child abuse with disbelief that one could move to a level of destruction that results in serious injury or death.
The jury came to a decision relatively fast: 40 years in prison and a $7,500 fine. We agonized over the plight of the young mother in prison and the protection of the children if she received probation. The prosecution had argued for life, which several of us would have gone for with ease. The prosecuting attorney painted a picture that most of us had already spent a considerable amount of time visualizing over the weekend. The last sights and sounds the dead child experienced were most likely yelling and screaming, the force of having brutal blows being delivered to her abdomen and other parts of the body. I felt the nauseating sensation of having her liver ripped apart allowing blood to fill the abdominal cavity.
What was going through the child’s mind? Confusion? Terror? Or even sadder, a normal reaction to not flee the mother, but to embrace her – a child’s way of apologizing for upsetting a parent?
When are we as a public going to address the root problem of child abuse and the myriad complications manifested in the symptoms we observe and treat – while ignoring the underlying causes? There was a father of this child who was guilty not of this crime, but one almost as bad. He was party to the creation of a life and then abandoned the child.
It was not just the mother who was left high and dry, but we the taxpayers footed the bulk of the financial bill. Where were the parents of this mother who needed to intervene and redirect? How many children with how many fathers would it take before someone held this young mother accountable for her actions and attempted to influence her judgment?
But then why bother? Public hospitals and other health programs covered part of her needs; other programs paid for the child care of multiple children while she piddled around with a job; and when she flew off the handle, dozens of tax supported people in the public safety and judicial system covered the cost of damages – which have already stretched into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that expenditure is just for one negligent person in one reckless moment of anger.
Jurors were not only inconvenienced but had to shoulder the burden of passing judgement on the guilt or innocence of a person under these repugnant circumstances. Do these criminals think we don’t feel the weight of our decision? After passing judgement on this mother, we learned from her defense attorney that she did, indeed, commit the crime – but that it was supposedly just an accident. We learned from the prosecutors that there was evidence of child abuse with her other children and that at least the three-year-old may have witnessed what really took place.
The prosecution had offered a plea bargain of 25 years and the defense had recommended she take it. But no, the mother decided to make a mockery out of the judicial system and burden 12 jurors for five days. It is hard to disguise my resentment when a mother smashes the body of her 18-pound child and then rolls the dice to see if a jury can be tricked into doubting whether or not she could have done it.
And yet, as jurors, we demonstrated compassion in ways that you would know only from being there. Where have parents failed when they raise children who turn into mothers without a sense of responsibility for their actions or remorse for bludgeoning a child?
The stories of not just child abuse but outright murdering of children are becoming so commonplace that we have become desensitized to the events. Virtually no one but a few family members came to this trial.
I am equally haunted by the medical reports and autopsy report presented as evidence at this trial. Upon reviewing them after we found the mother guilty, I was distraught to see the end of a life on paper. There were several pages of heart beats on magnetic strips that showed erratic patterns changing into flat lines up to the minute of death.
There was also the heartbreaking evidence in the autopsy report of the only crime committed by this 18-pound child: “The urinary bladder is devoid of urine.” The child was sentenced to death for wetting her pants. The mother escaped with only 40 years! When are we going to stop pretending that we don’t know the root problem of child abuse? We must deal with the breakdown of the family and the lack of basic training in the home before we can remedy the fruitless effort of dealing with the costly symptoms.
Will somebody help society to get on THIS side of the act of violence? The event is but a few seconds, but the stage is set months or years before. The caregivers, the public safety and the judiciary are crying for help. The prosecuting attorney called me after she received this essay to thank me. She also said that the district attorney had a mandatory rotation requirement. Nobody can get close to child abuse, real close, without having a physical, mental or spiritual breakdown. Yet many are called to serve in that arena. God bless them! LFM.