Snakes, A Child, and Defense Attorneys

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?

Boy: No.

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?

24 thoughts on “Snakes, A Child, and Defense Attorneys

  1. There are many jurisdictions where minors aren’t required to take the stand when they’re a hostile witness (every witness is considered “hostile” by either the prosecution or defense, depending who called the witness to testify). In some places standard practice is for a minor to prepare a videoed statement that is played in court before the jury. In others the minor is examined and cross examined via video link up, from a safe room, so they can’t be physically threatened or frightened by the presence of the defendant/s.
    Their are likely many people campaigning for these changes in the jurisdiction you’re reading from, support them and vote for them if this is important to you!!
    (I realise this is a delayed reply but want to get this info out in case anyone is still reading this).

  2. I still say they are monsters. They’re not subject to the same feelings we are or they would have felt anguish and pain while watching a child suffer. Even animals protect their young and take on ones that are abandoned. It is completely against human nature to cause this level of isolation and suffering on children and I equate them with the Areil Castros of the world, not with the tired mothers who snap.

    • I agree with Abby. The comparison to Areil Castro is totally correct. At his trial, he tried to claim that his prisoners were “happy” to be enslaved by him. The Williams say that they were good but strict parents.
      They are all of them sociopaths. And all belong in prison, with no release ever possible, so that they can never prey upon the helpless again.

  3. Pingback: Hana… | The adopted ones blog

  4. Name Withheld, I appreciate your taking the time to respond to me. There is one point on which we agree. If we dismiss the Williamses as ‘monsters’ – not human beings subject to the same emotions and needs as the rest of us – then we will not try to understand why this happened and we will not learn anything that can prevent future tragedies.

    Maureen has done a good job of educating us about two important contributing factors. One is the dangers of the Pearl method of child discipline, the idea that painful and unpleasant punishments will produce an obedient child. The other is the problematic nature of this adoption and the lack of follow-up.

    Where we disagree, Name Withheld, is that isolation was a cause of what happened. You asked me if I am available to people in my social circles who may be struggling and in need of someone to talk to who can be supportive. Yes I am, have been since I was a child, and I have often been called upon to talk with strangers too. I do not believe that this was a case of the isolation that an overworked stay at home mother often experiences. The Williams chose their isolation. While I cannot argue that there are no negative cultural influences out there that can affect our children, I can argue that this kind of severely restricted contact outside the family is highly dysfunctional. They did not even want their children interacting with others in their own church. A deaf man testified that when he attempted to sign with Immanuel, Larry took the boy away from him. It was testified that Immanuel was behind in his signing. This could have been a wonderful opportunity for him to learn more and a way for him to have more social experiences especially since I don’t believe the other children knew sign language. Was Larry afraid that his fellow congregation member would learn something detrimental about the household?

    There are also comments from people who knew her (I believe I saw them on Facebook and blogs) that Carri became angry whenever anyone tried to speak to her about how she treated the children. “My house, my children, my rules,” she was quoted as saying. I am looking for the reference but I believe there was an incident when a woman was speaking on the topic of childrearing to one of her women’s groups when Carri disagreed and got up and physically confronted the speaker, not hitting her but getting up in her face in her anger. The police reports states that in response to Carri’s frequent complaints about Hana, one of the women in her knitting group suggested that she disrupt the adoption and was told that she wouldn’t wish Hana on anyone. Carri had an extended family, a church family and friends that she could have reached out to. She didn’t.

    Thinking back to raising my own daughter, I got advice from books (love Dr. Spock), my own education, my mother, my friends, members of my church, the pediatrician. No one knows everything and while I would never accept what anyone else said uncritically, there is much to be learned from others. In addition it’s good to get some perspective. Things that seem important at the moment may not be.

    Of course this is speculation but from everything that I have read so far, it seems that Carri was very much invested in her view of herself as a good mother, seeing the children’s obedience as the proof. She selected a method of child rearing – the Pearls – that she felt was right. The adopted children were to be further proof of her choices and her abilities. The trouble is that our children are our responsibility but NOT our possessions and they have minds of their own. When Immanuel and Hana did not respond the way she wanted she was angry. She felt that she had to get control and she doubled down on the punishments. Either she was NOT the perfect mother OR the children were ‘defective’ in some way. Once she started thinking that way she dehumanized them in her mind and was able to take out all of her frustrations on the two children, doing things that are mind boggling to the rest of us.

    One of the lessons here is that we have to be more self-aware. We are not perfect people, sometimes our motives are selfish even though we pretend they are not, sometimes we have to re-think what we thought was true. We need to ask ourselves how our behavior appears to others, especially our loved ones. We need to adjust our course in the name of love. If we have to reject the community, friends, fellow church members, and members of our extended family and restrict our interactions to those who have no choice but to obey us just to maintain our sense of self and avoid having to make changes, then something is wrong with us, not everyone else.

    • Marsha, so very well said. Thank you so much!! This woman had to have it her way or else. These children could not steal food, it was locked up. These children ate what they were given, they were never full enough. This child did not put blood on the wall are chairs, she was afraid. This woman made it clear from day one “My house, my children, my rules”. She made it clear these are my children and you are not. This woman is evil.

  5. Name Withheld, it’s insulting to one’s intelligence to say one can’t “wrap your brain around” a concept that does not apply here. Passive-aggressive anger or any other behavior you think up with non-malicious intent would be far less sinister and cruel as the methods employed here. You sound like this mother made these children study too hard or sent them off to bed without dessert. SHE STARVED THEM!!! She thought up things to do to these children that are not in the realm of the imagination of a normal person, angry or not. We’re all here heart-wrenched and highly disturbed because these stories are unheard of. We have never imagined one would wet a sandwich before giving it to a child for example. The acquaintances and neighbors of these two were not allowed close enough access to know what was going on. My heart goes out to them because I know they are carrying a lot pain over not seeing the signs. She was in a gated home, “homeschooling” these kids and keeping them away from the world. Yes, others failed Hana like the reckless adoption agency surely did. However the blame belongs squarely on this particularly despicable woman and her accomplice. Should we be vigilant about keeping an eye on all children so they are not abused in this way? Absolutely. That does not mean this type of abuse is commonplace.

  6. Jackie, my writing above was in response to Marsha’s post. If editing were possible I would add an additional word to it .. “You are strong, vocal, angry, and indignant about the Williamses’ children’s treatment. Understandable, normal, _correct_.”

    You and others have ascribed malevolent intent where I believe none existed.

    “Your justification is that she didn’t understand hypothermia???” Not justification, there is no justification. Yes, absolutely, I don’t believe she understood about hypothermia. Extreme passive-aggressive anger provides an explanation (again, not justification) for her actions. In every example where you ascribe an overarching evil intent I believe you are wrong. I understand how some would have trouble getting their head around that concept.

    My reason for entering this conversation is that I believe many people around the Williamses could have changed the outcome, but didn’t get involved or chose to believe other than what they could have suspected. The adoption agency. Her social circle. Neighbors who hadn’t seen the adopted kids away from the house for a year. What about your social circle, your neighbors, is my point. It is simple arrogance to believe that no one you know could become involved in abuse if not now then down the road.

    I’ve read everything there is to read about the case including the charging documents. I won’t reply again until after the case is over. Thank you, Maureen, for reporting on this case, and peace to all of you.

  7. As I read the post from name withheld, I became very frustrated. After reading all of the posts I would like to agree 100% with Marsha Miller and Abby, as their posts said, succinctly, everything I wanted to say.

    The only points I’d like to echo are- Name Withheld: did you read Marsha’s post before you wrote your last one? She touched on every single ‘question’ you had in your first post and used facts from the case to back up her words. I’m so afraid that there are more people out there with your POV, who really don’t know enough about the details of the case to hold an informed opinion. I will state again: This was NOT the scenario of an overwrought parent who snapped once under duress and made a horrible ‘mistake’. These act(S) were cold and calculated and went on for many months. Do you really think that the parents didn’t know that starving, beating, and putting children out in the cold would lead to dire circumstances? Not to mention the psychological effects of keeping the two adopted children separate from the bio children and forcing them to sleep in showers, closets, barns, and in Hana’s case, use a porta potty. These are well thought out acts. Very calculated. NO ONE forced these people to adopt these children and these parents did not ask for help from any agency or professional. I beg you to read all of Maureen’s posts from the trial and also the Skagit Valley Herald (goskagit.com) to get some hard facts about the case/trial.

    Maureen, thank you for this post and for continuing to write about this trial, even though you are away with family. I know how invested you must be and I can’t tell you how much I thank you and appreciate you for that.

    I had the ‘experience’ of sitting in the jury pool for the four days of selection and I was not impressed at all with Ms. Forde. There is aggressive and there is disrespectful behavior and I feel that Ms. Forde definitely fit in the latter category. I did wonder how I would have handled her badgering the prosecution witnesses. I’m sure it would have been very frustrating to say the least. I am hoping and praying that the jury sees through the desperation of the defense and also that this age issue is cleared up. I am praying for justice for Hana and Immanuel.

  8. Pingback: Hana Grace Williams Trial

  9. Name Withheld, I can only conclude that you have not been paying attention to this trial thus your sympathy towards this monster. It was not discipline she was dishing out; it was pure torture. Her tactics would be cruel even in Guantanamo Bay! To give wet sandwiches and frozen food to children, to keep them out on the freezing rain and cold, to instruct her biological kids to not speak to them thus completely isolating them…it was torture. That’s not to mention the beatings, the sleeping closets the outhouse! We know she’s aware what she was doing is damaging because she didn’t treat the children she loves – her biological children – in this manner. Your justification is that she didn’t understand hypothermia??? So she meant to bring them to the brink of death but not kill them?

    I mean…to intentionally wet a sandwich and make it unstomachable before giving it to a child?? We don’t need to dehumanize her…she’s done that on her won.

    Dear Blogger, thank you for keeping us informed.

  10. I am sickened and angry at the way this little boy is being treated on the stand. What gives her the right to treat him this way after he has already suffered so much? I dont care how many treats he gets, no amount of treats can excuse the torture, or justify the badgering. Excellent post Maureen. It is my fear that the clients I treat will be treated the same way by the defense when they are in court, that is why I fighting for their testimony to be in closed chambers. They are even younger than Immanuel, but there are similarities to this case. I can also only pray that the jury sees Ms. Forde for who she is, and believes Immanuel.

  11. I’m not upset that anyone is angry with the Williamses, especially not Immanuel, he has every right to be angry with the Williams. Much of the Williamses behavior is not comprehensible to me. Some of their behavior does imply a significant lack of understanding of the situation in which they found themselves, one example being Hana’s shedding of clothes due to hypothermia. I am sure that they didn’t understand that Hana was in mortal jeopardy at that time; how much they should have understood about their situation is a question the courts will decide.

    I can comprehend, understand in an intellectual manner, and be sympathetic to the plight of a mother with seven children at home. I can understand discipline and a desire to bring order to a household. I also don’t understand much about the situation.

    Though many may say turnabout is fairplay, I think it is hazardous to dehumanize the Williamses.
    “Not us.”
    “Them.”
    “They.”
    “Others.”
    “Not MY friends.”
    People used to say the same about school shootings. You may have children, and a social circle. If one of your social circle was busy with new kids, and you saw her less and less and less over the course of a year or three, would you know if she was in trouble? You are stong, vocal, angry, and indignant about the Williams’ children’s treatment. Understandable, normal. If you had been in Carri Williams’ social circle, could she have come to you after having coffee with a group of women a few times a year? So yes, I am an abuse survivor, I am not young, and am truly sympathetic to the Williamses in the hopes that others in their situation will know that people CAN understand and provide light to their lives. (I am sorry if this upsets you, it is not my aim to do so.)

    • Since you are a survivor of abuse. There is understanding and forgiveness for your abuser? You are sympathetic? I feel you are making excuses for these people and should not. What about Hana?

  12. I find Name Withheld’s comments shocking. A child is dead and she/he is sympathetic to the people who killed her and upset with Immanuel for possibly being angry with the Williamses? I am angry with them and they didn’t abuse me or kill my sister. This isn’t a little boy with a disrupted placement who came forward with uncorroborated allegations. There was a death and an investigation and the stories told by Immanuel and the bio children as well as the Williams themselves at the time are remarkably congruent. Are the Williams allowed to be angry with Immanuel and Hana and torture them but a young boy is not allowed to have negative feelings about it?

    These people didn’t snap one day after getting frustrated dealing with too many children including two adopted children they didn’t understand. The long term sadism to the adopted children is chilling. Whippings for trivia or imagined offenses. Hana made to sleep in a closet and her brother in a shower stall. Being fed disgusting food outside even when it was snowing. Being hosed down with cold water. Not taking them to the doctor for years. No cakes for their birthdays, Hana sent outside for Christmas dinner until people dropped by and then she was allowed to come in for a piece of bread. Carri and the older children watching Hana in her death throes and laughing their heads off.

    And of course it was a ridiculous placement, one that the Williams themselves sought, not something foisted on them. With seven children of their own and only one income, I cannot understand why they would want to adopt two children from another country or this country for that matter. Perhaps they wanted to show how charitable they were. If they had adopted these children because they had more love to give then they would have acted lovingly to them and sought help if they didn’t know how to cope with them.

    Just because Larry Williams told his wife to call 911 and came home to try resuscitation, it doesn’t count as mitigation to me. They must have realized they were in real trouble. The murder charge is related to homicide as a result of child abuse. The law deliberately doesn’t require the intent to murder because adults should know the possible consequences of their acts – like starvation and making a child stay outside in the cold.

    It is one thing for a defense attorney to question this child and another for her to pretend he said something that he didn’t say.

    I am signing MY name.

  13. Thank you Maureen for keeping us informed. I can’t imagine what this little boy has gone through, and continues to go through. I really hope justice is served and he can move on with his life.

  14. I haven’t fully formed an opinion on the treatment of Immanuel by the defense. I don’t have answers to your questions. Part of me is sympathetic to your line of thought, another part of me sees a pretty resilient teenage boy who harbors anger at the Williams, would like to see them pay, and this is his shot at them. I hope for him to be successful in life, and expressing himself on the current stage has a therapeutic potential. I have hopes he can eventually forget about many, many things and move on with his life as soon as circumstances allow. How much time have the prosecutors spent with their witnesses and witnesses’ foster parents? I tend to think Immanuel would naturally desire their approval which could possibly influence some aspects and tone of his testimony.

    Know that the prosecution desires to send the Williams’ to jail for decades. They shouldn’t have to just be trudged off to jail without a defense. Know that no expense will have been spared by the prosecution on such a high-visibility trial. It seems unfair to me that the adoption agency isn’t on trial as well. They charge for adoption services, whereas the Williams’ appear, as a precondition for things to have gone so wrong, to have been in so very far over their heads with two foreign born, non-English speaking, special-needs, orphaned, adoptee children in addition to their seven biological children. It seems like a ridiculous placement that had tragic consequences.

    I am no expert on any of this, but it seems that the murder charge shouldn’t stand. For how many murders in Seattle have the offenders called 911 and performed resuscitation efforts while awaiting help? Have put out dry clean clothes for the victim? Assisted the officers in the investigation? This is most of all a tragedy for Hana and Immanuel, but have no doubt it is tragic for everyone involved.

    • Only if you believe them. They did put out dry clothes. They did not ask her to come in the house. They abused, killed one and beat those children and should pay with the rest of their lives.

    • “For how many murders in Seattle have the offenders called 911 and performed resuscitation efforts while awaiting help?” Gee, that was really big of Larry and Carri, while Hana died, committed suicide according to Carri, in a cold rain.

      Yes indeed it is tragic for everyone involved that Larry and Carri decided to cruelly torture their adopted children, killing one.

  15. Pingback: Williams Trial – Day 16: Immanuel Testifies for the 5th Time | Why Not Train A Child?

  16. Ms Force’s approach is amateurish & highly offensive to many observers, including the judge! She hasn’t learned when to go more gently, let alone when she is coming across as a BULLY! I think the strategy of the Prosecution is to let her hang herself instead of objecting on “badgering the witness ” grounds. Afterall, who asks a person with a Master’s Degree where they went to Primary & Secondary school when they also happen to be Ethiopian? She lacks wisdom, tact and class.

  17. I believe our judicial system is destructive all the way from how it selects a jury and what citizens must experience through to these examples of disrespect and malicious behavior towards those who must testify and be in the process often unwillingly. I also think this is a concern that goes beyond political views and unites us around privacy and respect.

  18. I totally agree~It is heartbreaking that this is happening and I can only pray he will be okay after being tortured again. Makes me sick. The only thing is Hana and Immanuel are not brother and sister. But were adopted together so that is why there is along of misunderstanding.

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