The challenges of prosecuting crimes against children were on full display the past two weeks in the Augusta judicial circuit.
On Thursday, jurors delivered a partial acquittal of Corduray Scott, who was charged with fatally squeezing and shaking his 3-month-old son, Corduray Jr., in 2010. While convinced Scott was guilty of felony murder, they cleared him of killing the boy with malice.
The week before in Columbia County, jurors deadlocked after 11 hours of deliberations could not produce a verdict in the case of Lawanda Concettes Tripp, a baby sitter accused in the 2009 death of a 22-month-old toddler. Former assistant district attorney Adam King said the prosecution walks into a trial with the jury’s sympathy for a child victim. But the advantage is limited – human nature makes it hard to believe someone could be so cold-hearted they would harm a child, King said.
“That sympathy cuts both ways,” he said.
The same can be said of the scientific and medical evidence.
The autopsy showed that Corduray Jr. had nine broken ribs, a skull fracture and a lacerated liver. There was also old blood in his lungs, suggesting that at some point he was smothered. He died Jan. 21 after his brain was jostled so hard it caused the seams of his skull to separate. Autopsy photos revealed dark splotches of blood on the underside of the scalp, which is normally white.
Jurors were presented with competing interpretations of what this meant.
The state’s witnesses included two pediatrics professors at the Medical College of Georgia who treated Corduray Jr. when he was admitted to the hospital.
Their opinion, and that of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lora Darrisaw, was that the child died of inflicted injuries. All said so with absolute certainty.
The defense’s expert doctor, Dr. Ed Willey, was equally convinced that the baby’s broken ribs were the result of a bone deficiency. Willey told jurors the bleeding brain that the state’s witnesses said was incontrovertible evidence of abuse could have been caused by many things besides trauma.
In almost every area, Willey’s testimony contradicted the state’s doctors.
Similarly, there were differing opinions in Tripp’s case about what led to the death of Teaira Michele Hall. Traumatic brain injuries were also to blame in her death, but doctors disputed whether the injuries occurred under Tripp’s care or days earlier.
King said the dual opinions are proof that “shaking is a pretty incomplete science at this point.”
“Some doctors say you can cause death by just shaking, others say that’s not enough,” King said. “The defenses are readily available.”
While a majority opinion in Scott’s case pointed toward abuse, it still didn’t pinpoint exactly who hurt the child. Scott offered two theories for the fatal injuries to Richmond County sheriff’s Investigator Sean Cochran.
One: the child fell out of a baby swing and hit his head. That swing, purchased used from the Salvation Army, was introduced as evidence. When asked to reproduce the failure of the swing for jurors, neither Scott nor the child’s mother, Shakeila Jones, could break the swing.
In a rare outburst for Assistant District Attorney Hank Syms, the prosecutor yelled at Scott to “break it” and “destroy it” when Scott made a half-hearted effort to break the swing.
“You can’t do it, can you? Because your story is a lie,” Syms shouted.
Scott also suggested that the child was hurt when he was jumping with Corduray Jr. in his arms to make him stop crying. Jurors watched a video of Scott demonstrating with a doll how he jumped with the child.
Expert witnesses testified that the force to inflict the child’s injuries would have to be significantly greater than what Scott showed.
As with many child abuse cases, there were only two witnesses to the incident that ultimately killed Corduray Jr. One was sentenced to life in prison Thursday and the other couldn’t talk even if he survived.
“When the defendant is the only person in the room with the child it’s hard to make heads or tails of it,” King said. “It’s hard to contradict what the defendant says.”