August 26: Motions and More: Starvation, Absconding, and Genuine Sorrow

After 2 weeks away, I was back in the Skagit County courtroom this morning.

These were the highlights of the trial today:

1. The final prosecution witness, a physician Board-certified in child abuse pediatrics, testified that Hana Alemu’s death from hypothermia was exacerbated not so much from malnourishment as from starvation. Dr. Rebecca Wiester said that Larry and Carri Williams were responsible for “stunning neglect,” given the pattern of food deprivation, physical abuse, isolation, and degrading treatment.

2. The judge told the jury to disregard the testimony of Hana’s cousin Kasseye Woldetsidik (whom I’ve also seen referred to as Tenssaye Kassaye). Woldetsidik testified last week, flying in from Ethiopia, bringing with him a family Bible and various photos of Hana. He was a prosecution witness, testifying to prove Hana’s age. Two problems: (1) He testified August 9, was supposed to return to Ethiopia, but has since disappeared. (2) The prosecuting attorney, Richard Weyrich, apparently gave Woldetsidik some clothes and some cash ($100), after Woldetsidik had testified, but did not disclose that to the defense attorneys. The defense attorneys filed a motion to remove Weyrich from the case (and perhaps to declare a mistrial). The judge ultimately decided to exclude the testimony of Hana’s cousin, and instructed the jury to disregard it, and not to speculate as to why.

3. The prosecution rested, meaning they have called all their witnesses. The defense witnesses now begin. They called one witness today, a deputy coroner who confirmed that at the autopsy, Hana was weighed by being held in the arms of the coroner who stood on a bathroom scale. Tomorrow they may have Joshua Williams, Larry and Carri’s oldest son, on the stand. Rachel Forde, Larry Williams’ attorney, said her main purpose in calling him was to rebut any claim that Larry and Carri were accomplices, but instead acted separately.

Impressions and Musings (in no particular order)

The Autopsy Photos

For at least the second time, several photos from Hana’s autopsy were shown on a big scene, court room lights off. They are shocking. She’s emaciated, bruised, naked, hair shorn. It’s very difficult to be matter of fact in looking at them, or in hearing medical discussions about the lack of subcutaneous fat, the wasting (as opposed to thinness) of the body . Several people in the audience wept, sniffling, trying to suppress tears. Carri Williams sobbed with her head down on the defense table; the attorneys barely responded to her behavior.

The Medical Conditions

Dr. Wiester is one of 3 physicians on a team that handles child abuse cases for Child Protection Services. She talked at length about the various medical issues of both Hana and Immanuel. Both had been exposed to TB; neither one had it. Hana was a Hepatitis B carrier, but did not have the active disease. Hana had h. pylori, bacteria in the stomach that can cause abdominal pain and acid reflux. It can be uncomfortable, but people don’t starve as a result of it. Hana was in less than the third percentile for weight for a child her age when she died.

At the time Hana died in 2011, none of the children in the Williams’ family (biological or adopted) had apparently been to a doctor since 2009.

Dr. Wiester talked about “intentional starvation,” a pattern of behavior she has seen before in child abuse cases. Food is withheld as a punishment. The child gets hungry, and steals food or hoards food. Then the child is punished more, by withholding food. There’s more bad behavior (a hungry child is often an irritable, unhappy child; a hungry child will likely try to “steal” food). The child may eat things that aren’t supposed to be eaten, just to chew and get something in his or her stomach, and then gets punished or that behavior.

The chronic starvation, said Dr. Wiester, made Hana susceptible to hypothermia, the cause of death, less than three years after she had arrived in the United States from Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian cousin

What a potential disaster his appearance/disappearance could be. Police are looking for him; he is now considered an “absconder.” Did he come to the US under false pretenses, intending to stay here and not return to Ethiopia? Did something bad happen to him?

His main value was to be the proof that Hana was under 16 years old at the time of death, so that the charge of homicide by abuse would stand. That charge has a heftier penalty if the victim is under 16.

He has a Facebook page: click here to see it. There are some family photos of Hana posted there.

Yes, there’s an element of the surreal about all of this.

The judge said that even though Woldetsidik’s testimony was to be disregarded, there were enough other witnesses to prove Hana’s age, including Hana herself, through videotape taken in 2007. A doctor who visited Hana’s orphanage in 2007 also testified last week that Hana’s age was around 10 at that time. The forensic dentists and others provided inconclusive evidence: Hana might have been 14-17 when she died, but no one knows for sure.

Motions to dismiss

After the jury was dismissed for the day, around 3:30, the lawyers offered various motions and the judge ruled on them.

Can you see the bus on the horizon, the one that either Larry or Carri is going to be thrown under? While there has been much agreement among the four defense attorneys (two for Larry, two for Carri), it was clear today that each client is going to be individually and vigorously defended Rachel Forde has been consistently the most outspoken. She was forthright today in her defense of Larry during various motions to get the counts (homicide by abuse, manslaughter, and assault on a child) dismissed or modified.She argued that Larry did not display “deliberate cruelty,” and she referred to “misguided attempts to correct behavior.” Her client Larry was at work, noon to midnight, every day except weekends. He had no idea what was going on.

Carri’s lawyers will perhaps say that Larry indeed knew, and was the head of the household. Judge Cook noted that Hana’s substantial weight loss, shaved head, time spent in the closet, and the outdoor port-a-potty were obvious signs that Larry must have noticed.

Judge Susan Cook listened to each lawyer, then denied the motions to dismiss the charges. The judge said several times that the Williamses had in fact created patterns of abuse and cruelty: “sufficient evidence of assault, if accepted by the jury.” She noted that the testimony of the Williams’ children provided substantiation for the charges to be considered by the jury. In other words, while it is up to the jury to decide, the judge felt that the evidence was compelling enough to bring to the jury, without dismissing or modifying the counts of homicide by abuse, manslaughter, and abuse of a child (Immanuel).

Collateral Damage

The oldest Williams’ child, like all of them, is in an odd, sad position. Were they brainwashed? Are they forever damaged? I’m sure they love their parents, but must be so confused. Certainly they all witnessed (and some participated in) abuse, isolation, and degradation of their two siblings, Hana and Immanuel. They witnessed Hana’s death, on a cold, rainy night in their backyard, weighing 78 pounds.

Joshua, who may testify tomorrow, is over 18 now. He has been serving in the military, from what I heard. Tomorrow he may testify about fights between his parents over how they treated Hana. So it would seem that he too will be throwing someone (his mother?) under the bus as well.

He apparently won’t need immunity, unlike his younger brothers, since he won’t be asked about whether he participated in the discipline. His main purpose will be to prove that one parent is more guilty than the other.

The defense attorney said Joshua was at the Quality Inn. That struck me as a poignant detail: a young man, serving his country, called to testify about his parents’ horrific behavior. He can’t go home again, in so many ways.

Court will resume tomorrow at 9am.

13 thoughts on “August 26: Motions and More: Starvation, Absconding, and Genuine Sorrow

  1. Pingback: Appeals Court Oral Arguments for Larry and Carri Williams | Light of Day Stories

  2. Pingback: Williams Trial – Day 21: Cousin’s Testimony Striken | Why Not Train A Child?

  3. I’ve been reading Homeschool Anonymous and Homeschool’s invisible children and it seems withholding food is a common way to punish a child. There are stories of other homeschooled kids who almost starved to death before escaping. One testimony I read by an adult homeschooler describes also being caught “stealing food” at night. The doctor did a good job of describing the terrible catch-22 Hana found herself in of being starving and probably becoming very irritable from lack of food.

    • It is heartbreaking, Christy. It makes no sense to me that a coroner’s office doesn’t have a specialized scale for weighing bodies. Just one more indignity, in a long, avoidable list of them.

      I have to keep thinking about what positive changes can come from this.

      • I got the impression from the tweets that the defense attorneys were challenging that method of weighing her body. I don’t see why that would give an inaccurate result, as long as the scale is accurate. I don’t know how else someone who is not alive could be weighed.

      • Yes, I think that’s exactly right, that they were trying to create doubt about the accuracy of Hana’s weight being 78 pounds at the time of her death.

        The deputy coroner said the coroner brought in a home bathroom scale to be used for the weighing. It still seems surprising to me that there is not a special scale for use by coroners to weigh bodies. Doctors have them for weighing their (living) patients–they aren’t using bathroom scales. Wouldn’t coroners have something similar?

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