Mom on trial for whipping son, then 5, with belt, leaving bruises

A jury must decide whether a Columbus mother went too far in spanking her then-5-year-old son with a belt so hard the lashes left bruises and welts on him.

“We are here today because Jessica Conaway crossed the line,” prosecutor LaRae Moore told the jury of 10 women and two men who must determine whether such discipline constitutes first-degree child cruelty. “She literally spanked him until he was black and blue.”

Conaway admits whipping the boy with a belt in May 2011 after he twice kicked a teacher’s aide at his elementary school and then slapped another boy on a playground. “So the evidence is pretty simple,” Moore said, telling jurors they must answer the question, “When is discipline crossing the line?”

In his opening statement today, defense attorney Moffett Flournoy countered that Conaway never meant to bruise the boy, so she had no malicious intent, a crucial element of the child cruelty law. She was six months’ pregnant at the time, and her son typically ran from her when he was in trouble, so she was not able to hold him still as she whipped him.

The child’s twisting around as she hit him resulted in bruises on the front of his legs and abdomen as well as his arms, back and buttocks, evidence showed.

The real question jurors must answer is, “Did she maliciously beat her child?” Flournoy said. Born June 4, 2005, the boy now is 7 years old. Married in 2003, his parents divorced in 2009. Conaway, 28, had custody of her son until the father, Mtina Motley, saw the bruises after picking the child up for a weekend visit on May 20, 2011.

He photographed them and discussed the matter with his mother before calling Columbus police to his mother’s Walters Loop home at 4:10 p.m. the next day.

“I had to calm myself down,” Motley testified today when asked about the delay. “I had to make sure my mind was straight.”

Police Cpl. David Marrero, the first to examine the boy, testified some of the marks were red and swollen, and he thought they warranted medical treatment, though the father never called an ambulance or a doctor.

Detective Jesse Knight testified Conaway was surprised when he showed her photos of the child’s injuries during an interview. “She was shocked that the bruises were there,” he said. A recording of the interview caught Conaway saying “wow” as she saw the pictures. She told Knight she had not noticed the bruises before.

Before Conaway testified today, Flournoy asked Judge William Rumer for a directed verdict of acquittal, claiming Moore failed to prove essential elements of the crime, including whether the child in fact suffered excessive pain.

The prosecution offered no expert testimony to show the boy’s pain was excessive, Flournoy said, adding Rumer had determined the boy could not testify because he couldn’t comprehend the oath a witness must swear. Rumer denied the motion.

Before Conaway took the stand, an assistant principal from the boy’s school testified the child was suspended the week before his whipping for kicking a teacher’s aide, and he was expelled when he did that again on May 17, 2011. Conaway said that’s why she whipped him the first time, striking him about five times with a looped belt. She had tried other methods of discipline, such as taking toys away and giving him “time out,” but they weren’t working, she said.

Two days later, when she saw him slap a boy on a playground, she called him into her apartment and whipped him five to 10 times with the belt, she said, but she did not mean to bruise him: “It was just supposed to be a spanking, and that was it.”

It was the culmination of two years of behavioral problems her son was having, she said: “The school was calling me once a week to come pick him up.”

Under Moore’s cross-examination, she acknowledged the boy had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the school had recommended he attend special-education classes. She also admitted the boy screamed, cried and tried to get away when she whipped him. Each time he was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and gym shorts, she said, telling Moore, “My son bruises easily.”

Moore asked whether bruising her son so extensively was acceptable. “No, it is not,” Conaway replied.

Closing arguments are expected Wednesday morning.