The defense took just three hours to present its case Monday afternoon, Feb. 15, in the trial for a former Ringgold foster mom accused of murder in the death a toddler. The defense rested just after 4 p.m., after the defendant waived her right to take the stand.
Sixty-year-old Clara Louise Edwards sat quietly at the defendant’s table in Catoosa County Superior Court for three hours Monday afternoon as her attorney called only three witnesses before resting.
The trial began Tuesday morning, Feb. 9, in Catoosa County Superior Court, after a jury of seven women and five men was chosen the previous day.
Edwards is accused of murder in the death of 23-month-old Saharah Weatherspoon, who was injured at the family’s Mallard Hill home between Dec. 29 and 30, 2013. The child died on New Year’s Day 2014 after being taken off life support.
Edwards claimed Saharah fell down a flight of stairs but was later fine, before hitting her head on a piece of furniture later that evening and being found unresponsive.
Edwards was indicted on the charge that she physically caused injuries and murdered the child. She’s facing charges of felony murder, malice murder, and cruelty to children. Edwards is being defended by attorney Dan Ripper of Chattanooga, Tenn., while the case is being prosecuted by Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit district attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin and assistant DA Alan Norton.
After Franklin rested on the state’s side Friday afternoon, trial resumed at 1 p.m. Monday.
Ripper’s primary witness, Dr. Phillip E. Keen, a long-time forensic pathologist retired medical examiner from Arizona, offered up a different opinion of the child’s injuries than the physicians of the prosecution.
Keen testified that autopsy photos and medical evaluations from Saharah’s hospitalization revealed both new and old injuries, but most of all, that the injuries could have occurred the way Edwards claimed.
“The head injuries are consistent with a fall,” Keen said. “The injuries are consistent with a child who fell regularly.”
Keen also discussed the bruises on the body and the injuries sustained to the brain.
He suggested that the brain could have smacked against the back of the skull if she hit the front of her head.
After performing nearly 13,000 autopsies in his career and serving as medical examiner in two different Arizona counties, Keen said he would have deemed the cause of death as “undetermined.”
“The death is a result of complications from blunt force head trauma,” Keen said. “But there’s not good evidence of homicide. … There’s no evidence to conclude one or the other of accident or homicide.”
During cross-examination Franklin pointed out that Keen’s assessment of the injuries differs from what Dr. Church and Dr. Darrisaw stated during last week’s testimony, and that it somewhat conflicts with certain literature on the subject.
“Are you aware that your opinion runs contrary to the literature on the matter,” Franklin asked.
“Yes, I am,” Keen replied.
During re-direct questioning, Ripper pointed out that pediatric forensic pathology isn’t a cookie-cutter type business, to which Keen admitted that he doesn’t try to tailor his findings to any one specific article on the matter.
Keen further stated that not only could the injuries have occurred by falling down the Edwards’ seven-step staircase, but also could have occurred with an even shorter fall.
“All you’d have to do is tumble down the steps,” Keen said. “Even just one step. Just a fall forward while standing up could cause this.”
The other two witnesses of the day were former DFACS worker Melissa Bryant, and former Omni Visions director Amy Irvin.
Omni Visions is a therapeutic foster care agency that helps put children in foster homes that are more suitable to their special needs.
Both Bryant and Irving described Edwards and the household as very loving, accommodating, and a model home for the children.
“Every time I visited, they (the Edwards) would be playing with the children, taking care of them. … I never saw any issue in the home,” Bryant said.
Bryant added that at first, Saharah was a child who didn’t smile, but that she evolved during her time with the Edwards.
“She wouldn’t smile, there was just a stare,” Bryant said. “She improved, and started to smile. She became a happier child.”
Bryan also mentioned one time when she showed up for an “unannounced home visit.”
“People sometimes act differently if they know we’re coming,” Bryant said. “I pulled up, and I could see Ms. Edwards and the children playing through a window.”
Irvin likewise described Edwards as very attentive foster parent, who always looked out for the best interest of the children.
“They really bonded, and Saharah became more comfortable, more animated, and more interactive,” Irvin said. “She brightened as a child. Ms. Edwards took care of them, provided for them, and filled their needs.”
Irvin said Edwards also attempted to work on Saharah’s developmental issues by helping her sign for things in a way.
“Did you ever feel as though the children were being abused in the Edwards home,” Ripper asked.
“No, I did not,” Irvin replied.
Ripper also pointed out following their first stint with the Edwards from March through May of 2013, the children were returned to their mother for essentially the summer before being deemed unfit a second time.
When the children needed a foster home a second time in September, DFCS specifically wanted the children placed back with the Edwards.
“They were happy to be back with the Edwards family,” Irvin said. “Saharah looked comfortable there. She was talking more, making more sounds, playing more, and by the end of it, she was into everything. Her tantrums had even significantly improved.”
Irvin also testified that Edwards tried to help baby-proof the home after Saharah fell getting out of the bathtub by buying slip-proof mats for the inside and outside of the bathtub.
She also confirmed Edwards’ claim from her original video interview with police that she inquired about getting the child a helmet because she was accident-prone and fell regularly.
“Ms. Edwards did mention getting a helmet as a safeguard measure,” Irvin said.
Instead of calling any other witnesses, including Edwards or her husband, Ronald, Ripper chose to rest his case.
Closing arguments in the case will begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.