WARRENTON, Ga. - A tearful Lottie Payne faced her accusers - and the jury - from the witness chair Wednesday afternoon, denying the state's assertion that she is criminally responsible for the drowning of her two young children.
"All I did was go to the bathroom," the 34-year-old defendant told jurors as she recounted the events of April 23, 2005, when 3-year-old Jonah and his 2-year-old sister, Nicole, wandered away from their home.
"I called out for them, a couple times in a row," she said. "I didn't get an answer."
Mrs. Payne is charged with two counts of second-degree cruelty to children for her failure to properly supervise her toddlers. Jurors are scheduled to deliberate today after closing arguments.
As she testified in her own defense Wednesday, she denied telling authorities that her children had gotten out of the house "five or six times" the day they wandered into a sewage-treatment pond and drowned while under her care.
"They got out just two times," she said. "And I was right there after them."
Under cross-examination by District Attorney Dennis Sanders, Mrs. Payne said it was mainly Nicole who habitually ran outside their home.
"I spanked her little behind," she said. "I even put her in time out."
Mr. Sanders, who contends that Mrs. Payne has a long history of improperly supervising her children to the point of criminal negligence, asked whether Jonah and Nicole were properly watched the day they vanished.
"You didn't do it that time did you?" he asked.
"No," she replied.
In other testimony Wednesday, Mrs. Payne's husband, Dennis Payne, told jurors he doesn't hold his wife responsible for his children's deaths and has hired a lawyer to sue the city of Warrenton, which owns the pond the children drowned in.
"So in your mind, it's not you or your wife's fault - it's all the city's fault?" Mr. Sanders asked Mr. Payne during cross-examination.
"That's right," he replied.
Another defense witness, Deborah Gunnin, a forensic psychologist from East Central Georgia Regional Hospital, testified that Mrs. Payne suffers from depression and post traumatic stress disorder and is borderline mentally retarded.
She also said the defendant suffered as a child from an abusive, drug-addicted, alcoholic father who beat her, and suffered further abuse when her mother remarried to a stepfather who molested her.
The stepfather, Dr. Gunnin said, was charged by police, although the charges failed to yield a conviction and Mrs. Payne eventually was returned to their home.
As a teenager, Mrs. Payne was sexually abused by her mother through activities that involved dressing her up and sending her on "dates" with men as a prostitute, Dr. Gunnin said, referring to her Sept. 26, 2005, evaluation of Mrs. Payne.
Later, to escape such activities, Mrs. Payne married - at the age of 19 - a 52-year-old man who was also physically and sexually abusive.
In terms of her suitability to face trial, however, the evaluation found her competent to stand trial, Dr. Gunnin said.
"She's not mentally retarded, but she's just above that," she testified, adding that Mrs. Payne's IQ score was 79 and "in the upper range" of what could be considered borderline mentally retarded.
"Seventy to 80 is considered borderline," she said. "And she was 79 in her score."
Dr. Gunnin said it is likely Mrs. Payne can distinguish right from wrong but would also be a slow learner because her reading level would be comparable to that of a third-grader.
Mrs. Payne also suffers from depression and has intermittently been treated with both anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication, she said.
She suffers from low self-esteem and recurring dreams of the abuse she suffered as a child, she said.
During her sleep she sometimes punches herself - sometimes hard enough to cause a black eye, she said, adding that Mrs. Payne made two suicide attempts - cutting her wrists at the age of 13 and attempting to cut her own throat when she was in her 20s.
Under cross-examination by prosecutors, Dr. Gunnin acknowledged that she found no evidence of insanity or incompetence and noted that a previous psychological exam - conducted when Mrs. Payne sought disability payments several years ago - deemed her "suitable for employment in a competitive environment."
Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or email@example.com.
The trial resumes at 9 a.m. today at Warren County Courthouse, followed by closing arguments, the judge's charge to the jury and the jury's deliberations.
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