Appeals Court Oral Arguments for Larry and Carri Williams

This morning the Washington State Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for Larry and Carri Williams, who are seeking to overturn their convictions for the death of their adopted Ethiopian daughter, Hana Alemu. Many thanks to those who were able to attend the 40 minute hearing: there were about 25 people there for Hana, several from the Ethiopian Community Center as well as others who have held Hana in their hearts. It was a great showing of support for Hana. The courtroom does not have space for many more people than were there sitting behind the prosecuting attorney today.

Neither Larry nor Carri were in the courtroom. Both are in jail in Washington state, and this was a strictly legal process. It will likely be weeks before we hear the decision of the court.

As always, I must say that I am not a lawyer, so am writing about this with a non-legal background. In October 2013, Carri Williams was found guilty of homicide by abuse of Hana; Larry Williams was found guilty of manslaughter of Hana. Each filed appeals for their convictions in the death of Hana. Information about their sentencing is available here.

Three appeals court judges today heard the oral arguments by attorneys first for Carri Williams’ case, then for Larry. The attorneys for Larry and Carri had submitted significant legal documents for the appeal, which of course the judges had read prior to today’s hearing. The entire hearing was under an hour. This was not a re-trying of the case–it was a legal process to see if errors had been made at the 2013 trial which were signficant enough to reverse the convictions.

The main argument offered by the attorney from the Washington State Appellate Project on Carri Williams’ behalf involved the failure of the original trial judge to grant a mistrial after Hana’s Ethiopian uncle essentially disappeared, failing to return to Ethiopia. The prosecution had brought the uncle to the US, and he had testified (through translators) that he had proof in a family Bible about Hana’s age. Hana’s age mattered for the homicide by abuse charge; Hana had to be under 16 years old for Carri to be charged for that crime. There was controversy about Hana’s actual age, and dental and other experts were witnesses at the trial. The disappearance of the uncle was problematic. The trial judge struck all of the uncle’s testimony, telling the jurors to ignore it. The lawyer for Carri argued today that the mistrial should have been granted.

The attorney from the Skagit Country Prosecutor’s Office (representing the state on half of Hana) argued that the decision to strike the uncle’s testimony was appropriate. One of the Appeals Court judges today asked about the torture definition, as the standard of “torture” was a necessary element for the homicide by abuse charge. The attorney explained that one act in itself (food deprivation, outside shower, or locking in closet) might not have reached the level of torture, but the cumulative effect over time did, and so experts were consulted during the trial about the nature of torture.

Again, no one was arguing about the factual horrific events that led to Hana’s death. The appeals process is focused on whether proper legal procedure was followed in the 2013 trial. Hence, there were discussions today about whether the dental witness should have testified for a longer time, whether the instructions to the jury were adequate, and whether the timing of witness lists was correct.

The hearing then turned to Larry Williams’ appeal. Larry was not home the night Hana died, but had been aware and involved in the various disciplinary techniques by Carri Williams. There was discussion today of whether, from a legal perspective, Larry was an “accomplice” or a “principal” in the events that led to Hana’s death. The attorney representing Larry acknowledged that Larry “doesn’t have entirely clean hands” in the case, but that doesn’t make him an accomplice in Hana’s death that night. In response, the prosecutor argued that Larry breached his duty as a parent by denying Hana basic necessities of life, and participated in deprivation to Hana that was reckless. The jury at the trial believed Larry was a participant; one legal question in this appeal is whether both Larry and Carri were principals in Hana’s death, or whether Larry was an accomplice.

Neither Larry nor Carri has appealed their convictions of assault of a child, which involved their Ethiopian adopted son Immanuel. Today’s hearing was solely about the convictions for Hana’s death.

The judges could take weeks or months to issue a decision. If the convictions are not overturned, the Williamses can file more appeals.

Hana, we are standing with you.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)







Update on Kristen Barbour and Carri Williams

Update on Kristen Barbour:

Kristen Barbour was sentenced to 6 to 12 months in jail for pleading no contest to the felony charge of endangering the 2 Ethiopian children she and her husband had adopted. Kristen’s petition to serve the sentence in an alternative housing situation was denied last week, and she will be sent to the Mercer County (PA) jail. However, she will be allowed out five days a week to be in her home with her 2 biological children while her husband, Douglas Barbour, works at the family gardening/nursery business. Her petition to allow time served before sentencing to decrease her time of 6 to 12 months in jail was also denied. Kristen will not be allowed to take the children outside the home, with the exception of doctor visits (or similar) for which she must get advance permission. You can read the Post-Gazette article, which includes remarks from the jail warden, here.

The Pattersons, the family that has adopted the 2 Ethiopian children, attended the court session on Kristen’s petitions. The Pattersons asked for help in reminding everyone that all children’s lives matter, all adopted children’s lives matter, and black people’s lives matter. While much has been made of Kristen’s Biblical/Christian motivation for both adoption and for discipline, the Pattersons ask people of faith to denounce any practices that endanger the lives of children. Information on how the children are doing now is available here.

A news video from the local Pittsburgh CBS station is available here. It includes Kristen’s attorney Robert Stewart commenting that he has been surprised at the amount of media coverage this case has had, given that he’s seen far worse cases of abuse.

The adoption community has really come together in speaking out for the rights of adopted children. Let’s keep talking about the safety of vulnerable children, the need for better pre- and post-adoption services, and the experiences and insights of adult adoptees.

Update on Carri Williams:

About a year ago, Carri and Larry Williams were convicted for the murder of Hana Williams and for the abuse of Immanuel Williams; Hana and Immanuel had been adopted from Ethiopia. Carri and Larry are currently serving lengthy prison sentences in Washington state. Both had indicated that they would appeal the conviction, and Carri Williams recently filed her appeal. Her case is being handled through the Washington Appellate Project, a nonprofit providing legal assistance to indigent clients.

Carri Williiams’ appeals brief is some 59 pages; the appeals process can be lengthy. Let’s continue to keep Hana and Immanuel in mind, and to hope that justice is served.


Is Probation the Appropriate Punishment for Abusing Adopted Children?

Douglas and Kristen Barbour pled No Contest in June to charges of child abuse and endangerment of their adopted Ethiopian children. On September 15, they will be sentenced. Both are asking for probation. Join me and many others in sending a message to the court that probation is not appropriate punishment.

If the court decides that probation is fair, what would the message be about the value of these children? What would it say about the responsibilities of adoptive parents to care for children? What would it say to Ethiopia about how their children are treated? Who will speak out on behalf of innocent children who are abused and endangered?

The Barbours adopted two Ethiopian children, ages 5 and 1, in March 2012. They had 2 biological children who were about 3 and 5 at that time. In October 2012, Douglas and Kristen Barbour (he was a state prosecutor; she a stay-at-home mom) were arrested for assault and endangerment of the two adopted children. The little boy was hospitalized for hypothermia, had skin lesions, and was dramatically underweight. The baby girl had healing fractures and retinal hemorrhaging. After being released from the hospital, both children were removed from the Barbours’ home by the state of Pennsylvania and placed in foster care. Read more about the case here.

The Barbours were well-educated people, experienced parents, middle class, with access to many resources they chose not to use. If a stranger had broken into the Barbour home and harmed the children the way their adoptive parents did, he would be sentenced to far more than probation.

Probation is not an appropriate punishment for broken bones, endangerment, trauma, and abuse, to which the parents did not plead “Innocent.” They pled no contest. Probation sends a terrible message to the community about the value of adopted children, and of children generally.

Please share your views about that punishment by writing to Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, Court of Common Pleas, 330 Frick Building, 437 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Fax: 412-350-3842

(Unfortunately, I do not have an email. If anyone has an email, please let me know.)

A brief note will do. We need to speak out for the children.

Write to Assistant District Attorney Jennifer DiGiovanni (attorney for the children) at Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, 401 Courthouse, 436 Grant St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Send an email to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Paula Ward about fairness for abused adopted children, at

On behalf of the children, thank you very much.


Adoption and Tragedy: Requiem for Hyunsu

A child died recently, a 3-year-old boy, adopted last October from Korea. His adoptive father has been arrested for the murder. (Read more here: Washington Post) It is a tragedy, and it is an adoption issue. His name (because names matter): Madoc Hyunsu (also spelled Hyeonsu) O’Callaghan.

As an adoptive mother, my heart aches for Hyunsu. I think about his first mother, his Korean family. There have been powerful vigils held in Seoul, led by adult adoptees and others, bringing all kinds of people together for reflection and prayer about the loss of this little boy.

Via Jane Jeong Trenka

Via Jane Jeong Trenka

There is much powerful information here at Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea.

There is a Facebook page In Remembrance of Hyeonsu. There is a virtual vigil taking place today, hosted by Adoption Links of DC. So many people, around the globe, are embracing this child.

An adult adoptee from China wrote an insightful, eloquent post on the great blog Red Thread Broken: “Honoring the Life and Death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan.” It’s so important to hear the perspectives of adult adoptees, especially perhaps around the death of an adopted child; their insight cuts close to the bone.

Here’s an excerpt from Red Thread Broken:

“Whenever there is an outpouring of outspoken voices in the adoptee community, dismissive comments from observers are sure to follow. These are some of the common thoughts that seem to be in question:

  • “Doesn’t it make you glad you didn’t get up in a home like that one?” – No, it doesn’t make me glad or extra grateful. Because my family came together in an alternative way, I shouldn’t have to feel appreciative my parents didn’t murder me. It should be my right, not a privilege to be in a safe home.
  • “Biological parents abuse/neglect/murder their kids, too.” – That’s a correct statement, but that fact shouldn’t allow us to ignore the severity of the same problems in adoptive homes.
  • “Adoptive homes actually have a staggeringly low rate of abuse … I mean crazy low…when compared to biological families.” – There is actually a long history of abuse and filicide in adoptee’s homes. However low you claim statistics to be, no child should be subject to abuse in their home. The fact that it’s happening at all means that it’s an issue.
  • “This is NOT an adoption issue.” – Hyunsu had no agency in what happened to him. He was placed for adoption in Korea. The agency matched Hyunsu with the O’Callaghan’s. Adoptive parent screening and home studies are not extensive enough. Adoption is what placed him in the hands of a murderer. This is most definitely an adoption issue.

It’s sickening to me that when a tragedy like this ensues and explicitly shows the brokenness of the international adoption system, people continue arguing the ways in which adoption is a miracle, a blessing, a glorious, romantic practice when it obviously had deadly consequences for this boy. It seems that many would rather spend their time justifying the adoption system and their way of parenthood than acknowledging the atrocities that could allow us to move forward with real reform to the system. A child who “loved his dogs, his big brother Aidan, and anything his parents made for him to eat” is dead because of the defective international adoption system. “He wasn’t dealt the simplest hand in life, but he found something to love in it every day,” the obituary said. Hyunsu’s short life should be honored, and sticking to the status quo by promoting an idealized culture around adoption certainly won’t do that.”

I added the bold to the words above.

My friend and fellow adoptive parent Margie Perscheid wrote this important and provocative post about why Hyunsu’s death is an adoption issue. There’s often a tendency in the adoption community to see these adoptee deaths as tragic and isolated, not linked with adoption. Margie explains, with compassion and fire, why Hyunsu’s death, and those of other adoptees, is indeed “an adoption issue.”

Hyunsu joins Ethiopian adoptee Hana Alemu, and too many others. May they rest in peace. May we not rest in the light of these tragedies. They are painful to think about, and it’s so tempting to pause, shake our heads, and then sweep the tragic event away. May justice be served. May we face terrible truths without fear, and work for genuine change, especially for vulnerable children.

Here are two of my posts about the changes needed: Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community, and It’s Time to Oppose CHIFF.

Re-homing: Treating Adopted Children Like–No, Worse Than–Dogs

Source: Reuters article "The Child Exchange" Sept. 9, 2013

Source: Reuters article “The Child Exchange” Sept. 9, 2013

Have you heard of re-homing? It’s kind of nice-sounding, usually used for dogs and cats to find new homes.

Recently, though, “re-homing” has been used in the human adoption community, to describe moving an adopted child from one adoptive home to another. There may be good reasons for moving a child. But it should never be done lightly, never without exhausting all other resources (respite, therapy, counseling, etc.). Never via a Yahoo group.

That said, in too many places, post-adoption services (never mind high-quality post-adoption services) may not be available. While there are some parents who give up easily on children, there are many who struggle mightily, financially, physically, emotionally, for long periods of time, trying to find help for their children.

Surely though the transfer of a child shouldn’t  be arranged over the Internet, with no real legal, adoption agency, or government oversight, with children essentially being handed off to strangers in a parking lot. Right?

Read this Reuters/NBC News article: Americans Use The Internet to Abandon Children Adopted From Overseas.

If you ever wondered if the international adoption process needs more oversight–better screening and rigorous training prior to adoption, plus accessible, thorough post-adoption services, plus genuine legal protection for children–this article should convince you.

Send the article on to your state and federal elected officials, asking if they are okay with children being “exchanged” with no oversight, potentially to people who have been convicted of child pornography, to people who will tell a child to dig her own grave, to people who will disappear with the child, ending in who knows what fate.

Insist to our elected officials that (at a minimum) more legal oversight is needed for the safety of children.  Ask them to support increased funding for pre-adopt and post-adopt services.

If you have been moved by the horrific trial for homicide, manslaughter, and assault of the adoptive parents of Hana Alemu and her adopted Ethiopian brother, read the article, and send it on with your comments to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Information on contacting your federal elected officials is here for the House and here for the Senate.

You can also contact the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and the National Council on Adoption, both of which work with adoption agencies and with federal and state governments.

Ask the US State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues what public and comprehensive action they will take to protect children, since that’s their job in overseeing international adoptions. Here’s a quote from their web page:  “In this work, we are fully committed to protecting the welfare and interests of children.” That must include an oversight and enforcement role after the children arrive here. 

State Department contact information is available here.

As an adoptive parent of two sons from the US and two daughters from Ethiopia, I am deeply saddened and outraged by the information in the Reuters article–but not surprised. These tragic stories have been happening for far too long, though they haven’t received the attention they deserve.

We don’t want bad things happening to dogs. Surely these tragedies should not ever happen to children.

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.

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?

August 2: Update on the Williamses’ Trial

The day began with the testimony of John Hutson, the prosecutor’s witness about torture. Mr Hutson said he had reviewed hundreds of pages of material on the case, and then, based on the questions from the prosecutor, outlined what “torture” means.

According to Mr. Hutson, torture occurs internationally and in the US, and has occurred throughout history. It can be a single event (the rack, thumbscrews) or can occur in a series. Duration also matters: being in a locked, dark closet for a few minutes is different from being in a dark, locked closet for hours at a time, over a period of weeks. He said that isolation can be a form of torture (again, extent and duration matter); coupled with malnutrition and physical pain, if it occurs for a long enough time, at some point it indeed becomes torture.

He briefly discussed the Geneva Convention and the US Constitution, noting that the common ground of what torture is generally includes cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Torture, he said, is not exclusively physical pain and suffering. It can include mental and psychological suffering as well. Isolation is among the most insidious forms of torture. Threats of torture, and watching someone you care about undergoing torture, can also be forms of torture.

What determines torture? (1) What is being done, and if things are being done in combination (beatings, food deprivation, humiliation, sensory deprivation) (2) How long these things are done for. Mr. Hutson noted that the impact of torture can be very different for a 25-year-old Marine versus a child, an ill person,or an elderly person.

What are the motivations for torture? Mr. Hutson said that torture is not accidental–there is some sort of motivation, whether to get someone to confess (Salem witches, military intelligence gathering), to modify behaviors, to punish past behaviors, or to influence the behavior of a person watching torture.

Mr. Hutson: That said, it doesn’t matter what the motivation is for torture. There may be an excuse, but there is no justification. To me, this is the heart of the entire day, if not the entire case.

Mr. Hutson then reviewed the various events that were part of the reports regarding Hana and Immanuel: reports from Child Protection Services, the police, doctor, coroner, and so on. He noted the beatings on the soles of the feet (painful, the marks less visible to others–he called this a classic example of torture), the cold shower, the outside showers, the confinement in the shower room and closet, the isolation from the rest of the family, the separation on birthdays and Christmas, the food deprivation (and the frozen vegetables, the wet sandwiches, served outside away from the rest of the family). He noted how disquieting these things are to the person to whom it is happening, and how the isolation in particular causes the person to be less able to cope when other things happen. These events can all make a victim less able to endure other things, especially when they don’t have strength from others to support them. Sen. John McCain, Mr. Hutson commented, has spoken about the torture he received while a prisoner in Vietnam, and how he gained strength from the other POWs–that was how McCain survived.

Both Hana and Immanuel are alleged to have endured all sorts of abuse. An additional element of abuse and perhaps torture, for them, was witnessing the other being abused. Mr. Hutson stressed that it is duration, as much as the force of physical abuse, that determines torture. How much time? How frequently? People who endure torture get worn down over time. Apprehension and confusion can be significant as well. You know the pain or isolation will happen again, but you don’t know when. And/or you don’t know what rules you’re breaking and how to comply. Also, you may be confused if the people who are harming you are the ones you believe should be caring for you.

Mr. Hutson then reviewed additional factors that could have contributed to the definition of torture: a prohibition to express emotions (such as crying); head shaving (not necessarily in itself torture, but a classic example of expressing  power and control, perhaps especially over a girl); the humiliation of using a Port-A-Potty outside (especially if it’s not well-maintained); the temperature of water (cold water, outside, involuntarily used); and the amount of time over which the various incidents occurred. (What a person can endure is different if it happens once or twice as opposed to 10 times, or if it happens several times a day and over several weeks’ time. People get worn down; they get weaker and become more susceptible to pain.)

He concluded that Hana and Immanuel were subjected to torture.

The defense attorney, Ms. Forde, then began her cross-examination. She challenged Mr. Hutson’s knowledge of the Constitution, the status of the law school for which he had been Dean, the fact he had not interviewed all the children, that he did not know the Washington state law about parental discipline, that there are many discrepancies in the various testimonies, that Mr. Hutson had said he had not read “every word” of the documents. She reviewed a lengthy list of hypotheticals: What if you learned that there was plenty of room in the closet to stretch out? What if you learned the spankings were not beatings? Would that then be torture? My sense is that she was outlining, or hinting at, what the defense witnesses are going to argue.

She closed by noting how much money Mr. Hutson, as an expert witness, stood to make in this trial, and suggested that he would now go on to make even more money as a result of testifying here. He disagreed.

The afternoon witnesses included women who knew Carri Williams from church or from her knitting group. Kay Starkovich, from the Wednesday morning knitting group, said that Carri had talked about her troubles with Hana at the group. The group suggested that Carri return Hana to the agency, but Carri said no. “She wouldn’t wish Hana on anyone.” The defense attorneys established that the only contact Ms. Starkovich had had with Carri was occasionally at the knitting store.

Another witness, Rona Engelson, has known Carri for about 14 years. Ms. Engelson had given piano lessons to the Williams’ children, and the two women had visited at each others’ homes, attended baby showers together, and given each other gifts. She said that Carri would teach from the Bible that men were the head of the household and that wives should submit to their husband, and that children should obey their parents. She said Carri kept a spanking rod in her bra strap, a thin rod about 12 inches long. Ms. Engelson said that Carri believed Immanuel was capable of not wetting his pants, that he wet his pants purposely. She said Carri believed Hana was sneaking out and stealing food, and that is why she was locked in her room. In phone calls, Carri had told Ms. Engelson that Hana and Immanuel were much harder to train than her other children. Carri, said Ms. Engelson, demanded perfection of her children and had the same expectations of Hana and Immanuel as she did the other children.

The afternoon ended with Detective Dan Luvera, who’s been a detective with the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office for the past 5 years (a total of 27 years with the Sheriff’s Office).  He was among the officers at the Williams’ house the night Hana died, and he attended the autopsy the next day, noting Hana’s injuries (abrasions, bruises) and that she was very thin. The detective had taken many photographs at the Williams’ home, including of the clothing on the ground in the back yard–clothing that Carri had set out for Hana (a short sleeve shirt, underwear, and blue nylon sweatpants), and clothing that Hana had taken off in the course of “paradoxical undressing” that occurs during hypothermia (a short sleeve shirt, loose capri-length shorts, socks, sneakers).

Det. Luvera had collected and packaged the clothing items as evidence the night Hana died. In court, he unpackaged and identified each item, which was then placed in evidence for the trial. This took quite a while.

He also testified that he and other officers had questioned the Williams’ children about Hana’s death, and that Larry and Carri insisted on being present. My sense is that usually children are questioned outside of their parents’ presence. Det. Luvera said the children looked at their parents before answering any questions.

The final part of Friday afternoon involved the prosecutor showing many photos to Det. Luvera, who identified them as photos of the Williams’ home.  The photos were then introduced into evidence. They have not yet been shown to the jury; that will likely happen Monday perhaps, if Det. Luvera testifies again then.

Court will resume Monday August 5 at 9am. The witness list was not announced.

August 1: Update on the Williamses’ Trial

Yesterday August 1, testimony began with Immanuel. The same arrangement of 3 certified interpreters was used. Immanuel is allowed to testify for no more than 2 1/2 hours a day, and not on consecutive days. I don’t know when he will next be in court. He was questioned by the prosecutor (he’s a prosecution witness) for the whole 2 1/2 hours today, with breaks.

The bulk of his testimony consisted of his descriptions of where he slept (a bed in the boys’ bedroom, on the floor in the boys’ bedroom, and in the shower room. Immanuel has or had enuresis, trouble with ability to control urination. Based on his testimony, it seems like the Williamses were constantly checking his underwear to see if he had wet himself, day or night. That pressure could make a little boy pee a lot, or surely be more nervous about peeing, and thus–pee a lot. If his pants were wet, he would be showered in cold water, sometimes inside the shower room and sometimes outside with the garden hose. He said he would be hosed down by Larry, Carri, or the 3 older boys: Joshua, Jacob, and Joseph.

The “shower room” was a room in the house with a shower and tub. It had a door that locked from the outside. If Immanuel wet the bed, he’s have to sleep in the tub in the shower room, where he’s be locked in. Yes, locked in a room with no toilet. He said it happened many, many times.

Immanuel said if he was asleep in the tub, Larry would check him when he came home from work, sometime after midnight, and turn the shower on him if he was wet.

Immanuel testified that Hana was also hosed down by the same 5 people, and that none of the other children were treated this way.

Immanuel also testified about meals and food. Apparently, one of Carri’s rules was that Immanuel had to say thank you before he got food, and sometimes he wouldn’t. so he wouldn’t get food. He and Hana were often forced to eat outside, all year round. The food was often cold, sometimes frozen–hard to eat, said Immanuel. Sandwiches were served wet. He was, he said, often hungry.

Immanuel testified about where Hana slept. She started off in the girls’ bedroom, but later slept in the shower room (not at the same time as Immanuel) and in what he called a “storage room with boxes,” which may have been a sign interpretation of a closet. Further testimony was about this closet and its location in what Immanuel called the music room. Immanuel said Hana would be in the closet all night, sometimes during the day. The closet, like the shower room, was locked from the outside; lights were controlled on the outside as well.

Sometimes, Immanuel said, Hana would sleep alone in the barn, about 80 feet from the house. He said that there was a little bathroom out there, where you could sit. It didn’t flush, but had toilet paper. He was describing the port-a-potty that the Williamses set up for Hana.

The final part of Immanuel’s testimony was about how the family communicated with Immanuel. Carri and the children knew sign language. Immanuel said that at Carri’s birthday party (not sure when that was), Carri told the children not to use sign language with Immanuel anymore. He couldn’t remember how long that lasted, but said it was a long time. To get his attention, they’d stomp on the floor. That would work, he said, depending on what part of the house they were in and he was in. Sometimes, he said, he didn’t respond fast enough because they were too far away from him and he didn’t feel the vibrations.

All of that testimony goes to the prosecution’s contention that Hana and Immanuel were isolated from the other children, a form of abuse/torture.

I want to say how much I admire the excellence and professionalism of the court interpreters. What a tough role for them. Many hearts ache for Immanuel. The special poignancy of a deaf child being isolated and humiliated had to affect them in a unique way.

In the afternoon, there was much discussion about the 5th amendment rights of the older Williams’ sons. Apparently they are concerned about their own liability: whether they could be charged for crimes against Immanuel, since he has testified that they beat him on his feet. The question of whether they did so with or without the permission of their parents also affects Larry and Carri–if they had permission, they implicate their parents. If they didn’t, they implicate themselves. My understanding is that, at this point, the boys won’t testify, but that could change.

In the afternoon, there were 2 witnesses called who knew Carri. One was Donna Lenderman, at whose house Carri and the children once visited and had dinner. Hana was dressed in some kind of wrap and didn’t play with the other children.

The other was Beverly Davies, who had met Carri at the knitting group. They had a couple of conversations about Carri’s children, including Hana and Immanuel. Ms. Davies said that Carri told her Hana was very rebellious and wouldn’t obey the rules. Carri told her that Hana was a liar and would steal, and that Carri couldn’t leave Hana alone in the house, and that they had tried counseling but it hadn’t worked. Carri told Ms. Davies that Hana’s body was developing, that Hana had gotten her period and refused to wear pads, rubbing the pads on the walls, and that Immanuel followed Hana’s lead in not eating the food put before them.

Ms. Davies also said that Carri said she was kicking Hana out as soon as she turned 18, that it wouldn’t be Carri’s problem what then happened to Hana.

To me, that suggests why Larry and Carri wanted Hana to be older than she was–there would be less time before they could legally cut Hana off. I’m struck (once again) by how much could have been done differently–there are so many resources (respite care, therapies, behavior modifications, incentives, etc.) that this family could have used to alleviate the problems.

The final witness was John Hutson, a lawyer and retired US Navy admiral who was dean of the University of New Hampshire Law School. He was called by the prosecution as an expert about torture and interrogation techniques. He has testified many times before Congress and elsewhere; the prosecutor spent much time reviewing Mr. Hutson’s credentials.

The defense attorney, Ms. Forde, then spent much time questioning Mr. Hutson’s credentials: not certified as an expert, no academic research published, never a consultant on a criminal case, not an expert on Washington state law. The judge reviewed Mr. Hutson’s resume and said he can in fact testify.

Court resumes at 9am Friday morning, August 2.

July 31: Update on the Williamses’ Trial

All of yesterday, Wednesday July 31, was taken up by one witness, with the “direct,” the prosecutor’s witness giving testimony and being questioned by the prosecutor, and then “cross-examination,” questioning of the witness by the defense attorneys. The witness was Julia Peterson, who has been a mental heath therapist for nearly 24 years. She specializes in working with deaf children, and is deaf herself. There were 2 hearing interpreters who signed to her and spoke her responses out loud.

Ms. Peterson said her goal as a therapist with deaf children is to provide direct communication access in a safe environment. She spoke about her goals as a clinician: to be sure she is the right therapist for the child, to assess any other cultural issues (beyond and including deafness), and to be attuned to a child’s specific needs.

She began working with Immanuel in December of 2011, when he was with his foster family and was referred to her for therapy due to behavioral issues.

Ms. Peterson was both eloquent and informative about working as a therapist with deaf children. She talked about taking time to assess Immanuel’s communication skills; he was quite delayed in sign. She noted that signing itself is one form of communication, but that facial expression is as much a part of grammar and communication as well. Her job as a therapist was to develop a rapport with her clients so they feel safe in expressing themselves, and then building a plan with strategies to improve behavior.

Immanuel, she said, was deeply worried about making mistakes and being punished when he began therapy. He said “I’m sorry” excessively. He told her that he had bad dreams about what had happened to him and Hana in the Williams’ family, and did not want to go back there. Ms. Peterson said Immanuel knew the difference between right and wrong, and felt confused: he didn’t understand why the family hurt him and Hana. He told her Hana had been his protector.

One therapy option, according to Ms. Peterson, is drawing, as well as signing. Drawing pictures is a common approach in therapy, especially with children. In one session, Immanuel didn’t want to draw, but instead wanted to write down family names. He proceeded to write all the names except for Hana, and described what each had done. He told the therapist that Carri had hit him with a rod on the feet; that Larry had hit him with a rod on the bottom of his feet and on his head, and had used a belt to hurt him; that Joseph had hit him on the feet and often said “Boo boo” to him; and that Cara and Sarah would tell Dad if his underwear was wet, even a little.  He said that Jonathan would stare at him in the bathroom, and often check his underwear; he was very fearful of Jonathan. Immanuel told Ms. Peterson that Larry and Carri would put him outside in the cold and spray him down with a hose when he wet himself.

Immanuel learned not to share  his feelings in the Williams’ house, the therapist said, and when he got to the foster family, would show his emotions in an aggressive way. She has been working with him to express his emotions without being afraid of being punished, and to decrease the aggressive behavior.

Ms. Peterson has diagnosed Immanuel with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, based on what happened to him at the Williamses. The prosecutor reviewed all of the criteria from the DSM-IV, a reference book used by clinicians to diagnose patients.

Ms. Forde, the defense attorney, spent the rest of the afternoon reviewing Ms. Peterson’s diagnosis of PTSD, suggesting that perhaps Immanuel had Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Ms. Peterson said while Immanuel had oppositional behavior, ODD was not the appropriate diagnosis.

Much of this questioning and responding was filled with frustration, I’d guess– a lawyer trying to make certain hypothetical points, and a mental health clinician who saw a bigger picture, and was not comfortable dealing in hypotheticals. For example, Ms. Forde asked whether Immanuel’s experiences being abandoned in a field and found by police in Ethiopia could have been traumatic. Ms. Peterson said while Immanuel was sad that he had lost his parents, he had a sense of relief at being found: those events had not traumatized him.

At one point, the judge said to Ms. Forde: “Counsel, take a breath.”

Ms. Forde’s job, keep in mind, is to create reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury on behalf of her client.  Thus, maybe PTSD was not the correct diagnosis.  Maybe Immanuel had been traumatized before arriving in the US. Maybe Immanuel’s memories were incorrect.  Maybe he fused memories from Ethiopia with what happened (or didn’t) with the Williamses.

Ms. Peterson spoke (signed) clearly and firmly with the voice of a clinician who knew and cared for her client well. She consistently brought her responses around to the specifics of Immanuel, and did not engage in hypotheticals.

Immanuel will testify this morning, Thursday August 1, at 9:30am.

It is unclear when and whether two of the older Williams’ sons will testify. There was much discussion by their lawyers about taking the 5th amendment so as not to incriminate themselves, since Immanuel has named them as hitting him. The lawyers for the boys asked for blanket immunity, which the judge did not grant. The question (I am not a lawyer) seems to be whether the boys can take the 5th for some answers but not others, or not for direct but for cross-examination. Everyone seemed to agree that it didn’t make sense for the boys to get on the stand and take the 5th for everything: that would be frustrating for the jury, and could put the defendants in a bad light. The lawyers were to review some case law and return with the information for the judge.

Ms. Forde, Larry Williams’ attorney, said yesterday that she was not going to further question Yohannes Kidane, the Ethiopian translator who had testified on Tuesday.