Child cruelty trial update: Sparks fly as prosecutor questions defense expert's credibility, past controversy

Sibiling: Never heard sister being spanked

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMay 8, 2013 

The child cruelty trial of former Little League coach Brandon Wallis turned more dramatic Thursday when the defense brought in an expert witness whose credibility the prosecution questioned because of his controversial past.

The witness was Dr. Adel Shaker, formerly a medical examiner for the state of Alabama and later for Mississippi, where the family of a black man found hanging from a tree accused Shaker of having previously falsified an autopsy report while he was working in Kenya.

Wallis’ defense attorneys called Shaker as an expert pathologist who could say whether Wallis’ daughter had bruises resulting from her father’s spanking Sept. 10, 2012, and whether such marks would appear worse on a child with hypothyroidism, one symptom of which is profuse bleeding.

Shaker told defense attorney Mark Shelnutt that after reviewing the girl’s medical records and photographs of her bruises, he concluded the bruises were not the result of a single event and may have been sustained over three days. He also said that because of her medical condition, the then-6-year-old girl would not have survived a beating as severe as prosecutors claim she got.

Shaker became agitated when Assistant District Attorney LaRae Moore delved into his past, pressing him to acknowledge that while being paid $190,000 a year as a Mississippi medical examiner, he earned $250 an hour testifying for defense attorneys in Tennessee and Georgia.

Moore also alleged Shaker’s boss in Mississippi freely testified in those cases that Shaker’s conclusions were wrong. Shaker left the state about a year after he was hired there.

He became embroiled in controversy when an attorney for the family of Fredrick Jermaine Carter, found hanging in a tree near Greenwood, Miss., in December 2010, challenged authorities’ ruling the death a suicide. The attorney alleged Shaker, who conducted Carter’s autopsy, previously lied about the death of a British tourist in Kenya in 1988. Despite evidence she was murdered, her death was ruled the result of a wild animal attack, based on Shaker’s report on the death. Shaker, who later fled Kenya, told British investigators in 2004 that Kenyan authorities altered his report and later compelled him to sign other falsified documents. “I was honest in Kenya. I’ve been honest in Mississippi,” Shaker told Moore of the Mississippi case, adding that he did not rule the man’s death a suicide, local authorities did.

Earlier Thursday, the defense called an older sibling who was in Wallis’ home with the girl the night before her injuries were reported to police. He said Wallis repeatedly told the girl to stand in a corner in a back bedroom, but she kept coming out, saying she was scared and didn’t want to stay there.

“Lately she hasn’t wanted to go anywhere by herself,” the sibling said.

Three times the father walked her back to the bedroom, said the sibling, who denied having heard the girl being spanked.

Here is Thursday's midday trial update:

UPDATE: Today the defense in the child cruelty trial of former Little League coach Brandon Wallis began presenting its case, calling witnesses to back the argument Wallis’ then-6-year-old daughter could have sustained bruises playing at ballfields before her father spanked her with a belt on Sept. 10, 2012.

But before that testimony began, defense attorney Mark Shelnutt used a different argument to try to convince Judge William Rumer to give a directed verdict of acquittal.

His argument delivered without the jury present was that the prosecution had failed to prove the girl’s spanking was malicious or unlawful or caused “excessive physical pain,” so it had not sufficiently established the elements required for a conviction on first-degree child cruelty.

Shelnutt said Wallis’ whipping the girl was justifiable parental discipline in light of her having that day brought home from school a poor classroom conduct note and then having refused to stand in the corner as her father ordered and then refused to go to sleep.

“She got spanked because she didn’t do what she was told,” he said, arguing such punishment is legal as long as it doesn’t cause cruel or excessive physical pain.

Workers at Midland Academy, where the girl is a first-grader, reported no evidence the girl was in pain the next day, when they reported her bruises to social workers and police, and she was able to ride a mechanical bull at a rodeo her mother took her to four days later, Shelnutt said. The girl’s parents divorced in 2009.

The courts long have recognized the right of parents to use corporal punishment to correct their children’s conduct, he said. Prosecutor LaRae Moore countered that it’s the jury’s task to determine whether the discipline was malicious and excessive. Rumer denied the motion.

With the jury back in the courtroom, Shelnutt and co-counsel William Kendrick summoned witnesses to say they saw Wallis’ daughter playing on a rocky slope at Britt David Park, where her father coached the Pioneer Little League team the Cyclones, before Wallis took her to his home that night.

Timothy Massey said he saw the girl crying after she fell, and observed her having a “stick war” with a boy about her age. Dixon Roy, that boy’s father, said he saw the girl playing with his son on the slope, but never saw them hit each other with sticks. His son that evening had no injuries, superficial or severe, and his son had no bruises like those shown in photos taken of the girl the next day.

Donna Mathis, a Midland Academy kindergarten teacher, recalled having the girl in her class during the previous school year. The child often fell and sometimes had bruises. Shown the photos taken Sept. 11, 2012, of the girl’s bruises, the teacher said she had never seen marks like that resulting from play.

As an educator subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding children’s injuries, she would have had to report such bruising to authorities were she to observe it on a child, she said.

The defense also called Joshua Williams, who helped Wallis coach the Cyclones and also saw the girl playing on the hill at Britt David Park. He said he was leaving the park when he saw the children on the slope and told Wallis his daughter should get off the hill or she could be injured.

To the jury the defense has argued that Wallis’ daughter has hypothyroidism, one symptom of which is that sufferers bruise more easily. So the girl could have been bruised playing at the ballfield, and her later spanking was not as forceful as the photos appear to depict.

The Georgia law on felony first-degree child cruelty says: “Any person commits the offense of cruelty to children in the first degree when such person maliciously causes a child under the age of 18 cruel or excessive physical or mental pain.” The felony carries a penalty of five to 20 years in prison.

Here's the report on Wednesday's court session:

Muscogee school workers testifying in the child cruelty trial of former Little League coach Brandon Wallis today said Wallis’ 6-year-old daughter had a mark on her face she told them came from her father slapping her, and the bruises on her buttocks were so dark her teacher could not bear to look at them.

“I had to look away,” said Holly Hendrix, the girl’s first-grade teacher at Columbus’ Midland Academy, as she recalled examining the child the morning of Sept. 11, 2012. “I got upset and emotional.”

Asked why, she replied: “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Her testimony followed that of Assistant Principal Janet LaFortune, who said she reacted similarly upon seeing the injuries: “I’d never seen bruises that bad. We were a little taken aback.”

Asked what she meant by “aback,” she said: “We were just all really shocked.”

It was LaFortune whose testimony first noted a mark on the little girl’s face, in addition to the bruises on her legs, back and buttocks.

“We asked about the red mark on her face,” the administrator said. “She said her dad slapped her…. She was very clear about what happened.”

School counselor Amy Arabian also recalled noticing the mark: “I saw a hand print on her face,” she told the court.

Among the witnesses on the second day of Wallis’ first-degree child cruelty trial was Kinieval Peters, a caseworker with the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services. Peters said that beyond her initial interview with the girl, she questioned her again weeks later upon learning the child had been allowed to have an unsupervised weekend visit with her father.

The girl said her father that weekend had talked to her about her bruises, or what she called “boo-boos,” Peters testified. She asked the child what her father had said.

“He said he didn’t do it,” she said the girl told her. “She said, ‘Yes, you did. You’re lying if you say you didn’t.”

Much of the day’s evidence focused on the initial discovery and reporting of the girl’s bruises. Hendrix recalled that first-graders and their teachers were at lunch about 11 a.m. that day when a coworker asked whether she had noticed marks on the girl’s legs. She walked over to the child and asked what happened. “My daddy spanked me,” the girl replied, she said.

She notified Arabian, who advised her to let the girl finish lunch. Then the teacher, counselor, principal and assistant principal examined the child in the principal’s office.

They asked what her father had spanked her with. “His belt, his hand, with everything,” Hendrix said the girl responded.

Hendrix, LaFortune and Arabian said their questioning elicited responses outlining this sequence of events: After spending the previous evening with her father at Britt David Park, where he was coaching, they went to his house where he discovered she had brought home a “red note” from school, and he spanked her with his belt.

A red note is a color-coded card bearing a checklist of classroom conduct violations, Hendrix said. The other colors are green and yellow, like a traffic light.

The girl told them her father whipped her again because he found her playing when she was supposed to have been in a corner for “time out,” and because she refused to go to bed when told to, they testified.

Arabian called Family and Children Services, which summoned Columbus police. By the time a caseworker arrived at the school, classes had ended at 12:30 p.m. for an early release day, and the girl’s mother had taken the child to a pediatrician’s office, where the caseworker and Columbus police converged to start their investigation.

Defense attorneys Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick questioned whether school workers properly interviewed the girl, as educators are not professional investigators.

Kendrick asked LaFortune why the school didn’t wait for a caseworker.

“The child is in our care,” she replied, adding such responsibility obligates educators to determine how a child was injured. They did not videotape or otherwise record the interview, but she and the principal took notes, and later she typed up a report, she said.

Each witness said the girl was forthcoming, and no one coaxed or browbeat her into an explanation. “It was brief. It was to the point,” LaFortune said.

Said Hendrix: “She was very clear. She was very articulate that day.”

She said the reason the girl got red notes was that she tended to have “meltdowns” in class, during which she would cry or refuse to stay in her seat.

The day after the girl took the note home, her father brought her to school, walked her to her classroom and told the teacher he had seen the note and “took care of it,” Hendrix said.

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