I am not a lawyer. The trial of Larry and Carri Williams has opened my eyes quite a bit to the US court process. This is the first–and I hope last–criminal trial I’ve attended in any capacity. I’m astonished by the way our legal system can treat a child.
Larry and Carri Williams are accused of the same crimes: homicide by abuse and manslaughter in the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter Hana Alemu and first degree assault of their adopted Ethiopian son Immanuel. They each have two public defenders. Carri Williams’ public defenders from Skagit County are Keith Tyne and Laura Riquelme. Rachel Forde is one of the two Snohomish County public defenders representing Larry Williams; Cassie Trueblood is the other. (Larry Williams is being held in the Snohomish County jail, though he is listed on the Skagit County jail roster.)
Sometimes these 4 attorneys are in agreement about a court procedure, a line of questioning, a piece of evidence. Sometimes they are not. The scuttlebutt is that either side could throw the other defendant under the bus. And I guess that’s their job.
During jury selection, the prospective jurors were asked about several things that might potentially affect or impair their ability to be objective, to be impartial. Was the idea of a child dying one of those things? What about beating a child? What about fundamentalist Christianity?
Ms. Forde spoke forcefully to the pool of possible jurors about her deep fear of snakes. She said that even the idea of snakes so affected her that she would not be able to have a clear, objective frame of mind if she were making an important decision. She asked potential jurors to reflect on their own “snakes,” the things that so disturbed them they couldn’t think clearly.
She also spoke quite candidly about her approach in the trial, that she would be outspoken and forceful. Would you as a juror be able to accept that, she wondered, and not see her as a “snake”?
I think about those questions now as I have watched her during this trial.
One job (I’ve been told it’s essentially the only job) of the defense attorney is to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors about the case and the witnesses being presented by the prosecution. That’s why Ms. Forde worked to discredit Immanuel’s therapist’s diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: maybe it’s really Oppositional Defiant Disorder?
Same with the forensic pathologist. Maybe Hana was not starved or malnourished: maybe it was anorexia?
We got a more intense insight of her approach during the cross-examination of the expert on torture. She made statements, ending with “Correct?” The witness said “No, not correct.” She kept going, as if the witness had not disagreed with her, asking a follow-up question the same way, and getting the same response. She closed her cross with him noting how much he had earned as an expert witness, and wouldn’t appearing in this trial now allow him to make all sorts of lucrative future appearances? He said no, but the point had been made.
It’s one thing to watch her engaging this way with a grown man in his 60’s, a retired US Navy admiral, a lawyer with years in the military. It’s another to watch this with a 12-year-old adopted deaf boy who has endured abuse and who watched his adopted sister be abused.
Gina Cole, the talented reporter with the Skagit County Herald, reported Ms. Forde’s tactics this way on August 7, 2013:
“Tuesday afternoon, the Williamses’ adopted son returned to the witness stand for the third time. Larry Williams’ attorney Rachel Forde talked the boy through losing his biological parents, being found by police in a field and taken to an orphanage, flying to the United States and meeting the Williams family, trying to acclimate to his new home and at times disobeying his new parents.
Forde’s questions were phrased as statements, inviting the boy to confirm they were true. But as the questions went on, the boy often replied that something did not happen and the question that followed implied it did:
Forde: So, when there were no eggs and you were supposed to clean the chicken coop, they showed you how to do that.
Boy: No, they never told me.
Forde: And because they showed you how to do it, that’s how you knew you were supposed to do it, right?
Several times, he told Forde the household rules were never explained to him, and he never understood the Williamses’ expectations. He also said he “never felt comfortable and liked it there,” through a sign-language interpreter.
Forde ended her questioning by asking the boy if he lied even though he knew he wasn’t supposed to, and the boy said he wasn’t sure what she meant. Forde then confirmed he knew the difference between the truth and a lie. The boy’s time was then up; he is limited to two and a half hours on the stand at a time.”
You can also follow Gina Cole on Twitter (Gina_SVH) at #Williamstrial; she posts directly from the court room.
So let me understand: Our court system protects minors vigilantly by insisting that they are identified only by their initials, to protect their privacy. But it allows children who have experienced trauma, who have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who have witnessed and received abuse, whose parents are accused of first degree assault against them, who were removed from their home by the state because of abuse –it allows the very adult system of badgering and goading to be used against a child in a public setting, with the defendants in the same room, and lots of adults staring at the child.
Well-adjusted, un-traumatized adults would have difficulty with this court room process of being repeatedly questioned in a harsh tone, of having answers ignored, of having to revisit and defend past, painful events. We expect them to cope, since they are adults.
Immanuel is a child, a child for whom the state of Washington had sufficient evidence to bring charges against his parents for assault on him and for the murder of his adopted Ethiopian sister. I am astonished and disappointed that the best our legal system can do for a child is to re-open wounds in a disturbing manner (through word choice, tone, repetition, confusing phrasing, eye-rolling, lack of eye contact, belittling), and treat a (traumatized, assaulted) child the same way as an adult on the stand.
Yes, in the eyes of the law, the assault is alleged. Still, we have heard from the defendants’ own biological children that the adopted children were isolated, put in closets, fed wet sandwiches, and hit with a plastic rod on the soles of their feet. We have heard from Immanuel’s well-credentialed therapist about his PTSD.
Yes, it is necessary for Immanuel to take the stand. Is it necessary for the child to be bullied by an adult in search of defending her client? Is this the best format we can arrange for a child to testify in our court system? Is this how we care for children?
Or is this the way we sacrifice them in pursuit of a defense?