July 30: Update on The Wiliams’ Trial

Apologies for technical difficulties that caused a delay in posting this.

On Tuesday, July 30, Dr. Daniel Selove, a medical doctor Board-certified in clinical pathology, anatomical pathology, and forensics, works with coroners to determine the causes of death. He spoke slowly and looked at the jury often as he gave detailed answers about what an autopsy involves and how he arrives at conclusions. He determined that the cause of Hana’s death in May 2011 was hypothermia, which happens when the body’s core temperature is too cold for the person to survive. He also determined two conditions that contributed to her death: malnutrition and H. Pylori, or gastritis, the inflammation of the stomach lining.

Dr. Selove spent hours going over the conditions that Hana did not have, and did not die from (cancer, AIDS, overactive thyroid gland, parasites, diabetes, schizophrenia, trauma, drugs, drowning, food allergies, anorexia/bulimia, stroke, more).

The prosecutor (Mr. Weyrich) had Dr. Selove review more autopsy photos, noting her the protrusion of her ribs and shoulder blades, her overall thinness, her lack of subcutaneous tissue (the fat under the skin that can keep us warm, if we have enough).

Dr. Selove described what the circumstances that hypothermia occurs in: children and elderly are more at risk, as are thin people; a cold environment, though temps don;t have to be freezing; wet clothes or wet skin, laying on cold surfaces. People dying from hypothermia undergo brain changes, which cause them to stumble and fall. They also engage in what’s called “paradoxical undressing,” taking their clothes off because they have the false sense that they are warm. Hana stumbled and fell that night, and took off her clothes, before she fell unconscious to the ground and later died.

Dr. Selove showed autopsy photos of the many cuts and bruises that Hana apparently acquired the night she died, abrasions on her head, pelvis, elbows, and knees. He also pointed out “striking marks” on Hana’s calves and thigh that Hana had likely received in the hours or days before she died. These injuries were the result of having been struck by a stick-like object; Hana had at least 14 such marks. None of the cuts or the striking marks caused Hana’s death.

Dr. Selove said that the autopsy found no other cause of death besides hypothermia.

The defense attorneys then went over with Dr. Selove, slowly and in great medical detail, the various conditions such as giardia, low organ weight, diabetes, bulimia/anorexia. Ms. Trueblood had Dr. Selove comment on an autopsy photo of Hana’s backside, saying that Hana appeared to have subcutaneous fat under her buttocks and thighs. Ms. Trueblood asked if Hana’s fingernails showed evidence of hypothermia, such as splitting or ridges; Dr. Selove said no. Ms. Trueblood asked about bulimia and anorexia. Dr. Selove said Hana’s esophagus did not show signs of inflammation from vomiting, which is part of bulimia.

The defense attorneys also talked about how conditions like anorexia and bulimia often occur in a clandestine way: that people starve, binge, and purge themselves in secret. I am guessing that they mean to suggest that Hana perhaps covered up her possible bulimia/anorexia, and died as a result of that, rather than malnutrition. This was not a family where privacy was valued highly. Immanuel testified Monday that sometimes he peed on himself because somebody had to go with him to the bathroom, and there wasn’t always somebody around to do that. He and Hana were hosed off outside, or had to shower outside, under the supervision of others.

I’m pretty horrified that the defense is suggesting Hana’s weight loss was from anorexia or bulimia, rather than malnutrition. But I’m more saddened that Hana apparently never received any medical attention after 2009. Both Dr. Chalmers yesterday and Dr. Selove today used Hana’s medical records to look at her weight loss: Hana weighed between 77 and 109 pounds during August 2008 and June 2009. No other medical records apparently exist for her until she was weighed after her death. She was 80 pounds then, at 5 feet tall, in the 5th percentile for girls her age.

The next witness was Gay Knutson, now the Director of Social Services at Adoption Advocates International, the agency used by the Williamses. Ms. Knutson was not personally involved with the Wiliamses’ adoptions of Hana and Immanuel. She testified about various documents that were from the “family file” for Hana and the Williamses: the Welcome Home packet, the child placement papers, the personal data sheets of Larry and Carri Williams, the home study, the post-placement reports. These are all standard adoption agency items.

Ms. Knutson noted that the Williamses were required, like all families who adopt from Ethiopia, to submit post-placement reports every year until the children turn 18. Both the adoption agency and Ethiopia want to know that the children are doing well in their adoptive homes. The Williamses did not submit any post-placement reports after 2009.

Another reason for these post-placement reports is the possibility of the family’s getting help if things are not going well. AAI encouraged families to call if they needed help. They had no record of the Williamses ever calling.

There is a video of Hana taken in Ethiopia by AAI in October 2007, which the prosecution wants to show at some point. Hana said her age in the video, which the defense attorneys challenge. I’m not clear whether Ms. Knutson’s testimony was sufficient to allow the video to be entered and shown. There is another witness who may testify about the video as well, later in the trial.

The final witness was Yohannes Kidane, an instructional assistant with Seattle Public schools, who is fluent in English, Amharic, and Tigrinya. The prosecution hired Mr. Kidane to review adoption-related documents from Ethiopia, to verify that they said the same things in English and Amharic.

Mr. Kidane also explained how the Ethiopian calendar varies from the Gregorian calendar the US uses: the Ethiopian New Year begins in September; the months are all 30 days except for a 13th month which is 5 days; their calendar is between 7-8 years behind the Gregorian calendar. By the Ethiopian calendar, it’s 2005 now. This is important because the dates of events are different on documents, depending whether the Gregorian or Ethiopian calendar is being used.

Mr. Kidane has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Asmara, in Eritrea, and a master’s degree as well. The day ended as Ms. Forde, Larry Williams’ attorney, was asking Mr. Kidane where he went to primary school and high school, over 20 years ago.

The defense attorneys did not ask Ms. Knutson about her education (kindergarten and on), nor Dr. Selove, nor Dr. Chalmers.

Mr. Kidane is expected to testify again Wednesday July 31, probably after lunch break at 1:30. The morning will begin at 9am, with testimony from a Children’s Hospital mental health counselor who was Immanuel’s therapist. The Williamses’ son Joseph could also testify, though the defense lawyers said Joseph’s attorney have told them Joseph plans to take the Fifth amendment on certain items, likely related to the fact that Immanuel had named Joseph as one of the people who hit him. The lawyers and judge were going to confer about next steps regarding Joseph.

A Fair Trial? What About Fairness For The Children?


I spent last week in a courtroom for several days, watching the legal process unfold in the trial of Larry and Carri Williams. I listened to the judge and lawyers discuss the value of burden of proof, of impartiality, of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and of distinctions between bad decisions and criminal behavior. My writing last week was, I believe, fair and impartial. I wanted to give folks an idea of what was going on, in a relatively objective voice.

I will still try to be fair when I write this coming week, but my gloves are off. Testimony begins Monday, July 29, at 9am pdt at the Skagit County Courthouse. If you are a witness or juror, please stop reading. Please don’t do anything to jeopardize this trial.

I’m not a witness and I’m not on the jury. I’m an adoptive parent. I worked in adoption as an executive director for 3 adoption-related organizations. I am a fierce advocate for adoption policy that is transparent and has integrity–it’s a big goal that is not yet in our grasp, to say the least.

Here are some thoughts about fairness, the trial, and adoption.

Why wasn’t the issue of race even mentioned in the jury selection process?

Never once in the 3 1/2 days of jury selection was the idea of race, or of placing black children with a white family, or of transracial families, even raised. 

Is that a big deal? Yes. We don’t know if there are jurors who believe that most black children behave badly. Or believe that the Williamses were foolish to adopt transracially, that it wasn’t going to work. Or have never met a black person in their lives, but have formed judgements about them.

Prior to selection, the jurors were asked if anyone had ever been to Ethiopia, or knew any Ethiopians.  Not a hand was raised, and that’s not shocking in that part of Washington state. Skagit County is not that diverse, as far as I can see.

But the issue of race was never raised with the jury in any kind of conversation.

Race, it turns out, is a divisive issue in our country.

Why did Adoption Advocates International place 2 older, unrelated Ethiopian children with a family that had 7 children already?

i don’t know. Two reasons come to mind. One is a simplistic belief that an Ethiopian child would always be better off in America than in Ethiopia. That takes a certain amount of cultural arrogance to believe, though I realize that economically life is better here.

The second is money. Two placements are more cash flow for an agency.

There certainly are very big adoptive families in which children thrive, where the parents have good support systems and avail themselves of post-adoption resources.

Did this placement meet the needs of Hana and Immanuel?

Adoption should first and foremost meet the needs of the children.

Immanuel is deaf. He was placed with the Williamses because Carri loves sign language, taught her children sign language, worked as a sign language interpreter. On paper, that would seem a reasonable match–if the Williamses had received (1) full and substantial training in trauma and attachment, (2) were fully aware and informed of Immanuel’s life experiences up to that point, and (3) had a solid system of support and resources to call on in raising a deaf, transracial, older, internationally adopted child. They also needed to be willing to use those resources, not just a few months or a year after placement, but for years and years after.

Why was Hana placed with the Williamses?

Court documents surely suggest Hana was an afterthought of sorts.  She was not Immanuel’s biological sister. In terms of adoption practice, much thought and consideration should be given to placing unrelated siblings together, especially when birth order in the adoptive family will be disrupted.

Court documents show that Carri Williams was disappointed that Hana was not a little girl. Regardless of all the discussion about Hana’s age, clearly Hana was at least 10. The adoption process can be complicated, but I don’t think the agency suggested that Hana was 3 or 5 or even 8. If Carri wanted a little girl, why did she accept a 10-year-old? That certainly set Hana up for a fall, through no fault of hers.

What options did the Williamses have, in terms of Hana and Immanuel?

They had many options. The most extreme would be to dissolve the adoption and terminate their parental rights to the adopted children. Their adoption agency had a program and resources for what’s called “re-homing” children.

Before that was necessary, though, the Williamses could have sought respite care. They could have moved the children to stay temporarily with friends or family. They could have put the children in therapy, gotten counseling, looked into medications–if those were appropriate for Hana and Immanuel. They could have sought out (on-line or on the phone) well-established resources such as PACT: An Adoption Alliance in California,  C.A.S.E. (Center for Adoption Support and Education) in Maryland, the Attachment and Bonding Center in Ohio, or the North American Council on Adoptable Children in Minnesota. They could have connected with other adoptive families. They could have connected with the large Ethiopian community in Seattle. They could have asked their adoption agency for help, or reached out to the social worker who approved their home study.

That’s just a list off the top of my head. The Williamses had so many options, besides having a child die and another assaulted.

When is spanking no longer spanking?

Who knows what discussions the adoption social workers had with the Williamses about discipline?  It’s a basic part of the home study process for adoption. It’s a tender subject, often especially in the Christian fundamentalist community, of which Larry and Carri are a part.

The defense attorneys in particular spent a lot of time during the jury selection process talking about spanking. The jurors talked about their own experiences. Some had been not spanked so much as beaten, and said they raised their own children differently. Many said there are lots of other options in disciplining children, especially after a child is out of diapers. Hana and Immanuel were approximately 10 and 8 years old when they arrived, 13 and 11 when Hana died.

Spanking is allowed in Washington state, as long as it doesn’t leave a mark. The Williamses spanked all their children. They used some sort of plastic plumbing implement. They raised their biological children that way. Hana and Immanuel thus came into a home that used significant corporal punishment as discipline.

Spanking or beating traumatized children is inappropriate. Children who are older at the time of adoption are often traumatized children: they have lost their first family at a minimum, and may or may not have experienced neglect, abuse, and other trauma. Often, the only impact that spanking or beating has is to further traumatize children, and take away any sense of trust they need to become bonded and attached in a family. Beating or isolating traumatized children doesn’t make them behave better. This is basic adoption social work, basic mental health policy.

But the Williamses didn’t just spank Hana and Immanuel, their only adopted children, on their bottoms, back of thighs, and soles of feet. They also locked them in cement-floor rooms or in small closets, with lights and locks controlled from the outside, for hours at a time.

As punishments, Larry and Carri Williams fed Hana and Immanuel cold leftovers with frozen peas on top, or wet sandwiches, and had them eat outside, all year round.They refused them birthday gifts and Christmas celebration with the family. They made Hana shower outside with cold water from the garden hose. They made her use a port-a-potty outside the barn, some 80 feet from the house. Carri told the other children not to sign with Immanuel as a form of punishment, thus isolating him in a uniquely powerful way.

The lawyers had many discussions about spanking with the jury prior to selection. They had some brief, general ones about food deprivation and about locking children in closets.  They didn’t belabor these points, so as not (I would guess) to sway the jury too much. These are frightening, depressing topics if we think about them, and if we think about them in relation to children.

Imagine when children actually experience them, over a long period of time.

What did these children do to deserve this treatment? 

The defense attorneys have used the words “oppositional” and “rebellious” in relation to Hana and Immanuel. I’d argue this could be an appropriate response to being beaten, being locked in dark, small rooms for hours, and being isolated from the family that was supposed to love and care for them.

The prosecutor said that Hana and Immanuel were beaten and otherwise punished for transgressions such as not completing homework correctly, making a bed wrong, leaving clothes on the floor, stealing junk food or bread, wetting themselves, and not obeying the rules of the household. Sometimes the rules apparently included standing at a particular distance. The defense didn’t dispute this.

Here’s what strikes me. Neither the defense nor the prosecutors have said anything to suggest that Hana and Immanuel endangered the parents or the other children, or harmed family pets, or set fires, or destroyed property. Those to me would be major transgressions. Hana and Immanuel did not do those sorts of violent, dangerous things. 

I’m not suggesting that abuse is justified, whether transgressions were large or small. Never. These horrific things happened over what seems like normal childhood behavior. There are lots of resources available for parents dealing with small and large behaviors.

This next point is not a question, but a comment.  The Williamses are willing, because of this trial, to have their children testify in court about all that they witnessed, including the beatings, punishments, and death of a sibling with them for 3 years. This includes Immanuel, who not only witnessed all that, but received enough abuse for the state of Washington to bring assault changes against the Williamses.

All the minor children have been in foster care for almost 2 years, and have not had contact with their parents. All the children were interviewed after their parents were arrested; all gave chilling descriptions of what went on in their home. The older children were apparently allowed or encouraged to discipline the younger ones.

Surely all these children will be re-traumatized, in having to see their parents in a court room after 2 years (they may well love their parents–we are hardwired that way, after all), having to answer questions from lawyers about abuse and death, having to hear their mother sob about it all, having to re-live the experiences of witnessing abuse and death. All this in public, in front of strangers in the courtroom, all being filmed for TV news.

What a hellish thing to put children through, especially Immanuel.

I guess that the lawyers and judge are okay with it, as well as the Williamses.

Why did Hana refuse to go inside the night she died?

The prosecutor said Carri went outside and hit Hana to get her to come inside. The defense attorney said the door was never locked, and Hana could go in anytime but refused. If you were a child who’d been constantly beaten, and locked in a closet, deprived of food, humiliated and degraded in front of and by your parents and siblings, would you go inside?

Hana Alemu Trial

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

In 2 weeks, if all goes according to schedule, the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, adoptive parents (and alleged murderers) of Hana Alemu (Hannah Williams) will take place: Monday, July 22, 2013, at 9am at the Skagit County Courthouse in Mount Vernon, Washington.

Jury selection will probably take 2 or 3 days, so the opening statements might begin on Wednesday July 24 or Thursday July 25. Additionally, there is a meeting among the lawyers scheduled for July 16, for last minute maneuvering. As I hear any news, I will post an update.

Please spread the word encouraging others to attend this trial if at all possible.  I plan to be there, to bear witness for Hana, in the hope that justice will be served.

For background information, please see my previous posts Update on Hana AlemuOn Mother’s Day, and In Remembrance of Hana.

The Williamses are accused of homicide by abuse: this charge means that they caused Hana’s death (May 12, 2011) due to a pattern or practice of abuse or torture. It’s apparently a difficult charge to prove, as a jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a pattern of torture or abuse existed, and that the pattern caused Hana’s death. If the Williamses are found guilty, the average sentence is 23 years.

The Williamses are also accused of 2 other crimes. One is first degree assault on Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted. The charge means that they caused him serious bodily harm.

While much attention has rightly been placed on Hana’s death, Immanuel was certainly a victim here as well. May we all keep him in our hearts. What that child has apparently been through–terrible abuse by his adoptive parents, as well as witnessing Hana’s abuse and death–is wrenching. He will likely be called to testify at the trial. I have heard he is doing well in his foster home, where his foster mother is deaf (as is Immanuel) and is teaching him sign language in a safe environment. I wish him healing, strength, and justice.

The other criminal charge against the Williamses is first degree manslaughter of Hana, which means recklessly causing her death. That carries a sentence of 7.5 years.

I’m not a lawyer. It’s been over 2 years since Hana died, and the trial is only happening now. Her body has been exhumed and reburied. No doubt there have been dozens of meetings and hearings and other legal actions. No one knows what the outcome of the trial will be. We can hope for justice for Hana.  Whatever happens, we will not forget her.

And let’s remember Immanuel always as well.

Update on Hana Alemu: Trial in July

Hana Alemu was an Ethiopian adoptee found dead outside her adoptive parents’ home in Washington state over two years ago.  Many people–Ethiopians, Americans, adoptive parents, adoptees–were enraged and deeply saddened by the circumstances of Hana’s death.  I’ve written about Hana before, here and here. This Facebook group honors Hana.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

A Brief Recap

Hana Alemu died May 12, 2011.  A report on her death cited by the Seattle Times said she died from “a culmination of chronic starvation caused by a parent’s intentional food restriction, severe neglect, physical and emotional abuse, and stunning endangerment.”

Her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were charged with her death in September 2011. In November 2012, they pled not guilty to the charges against them: homicide by abuse and first degree manslaughter by domestic violence.

Carri and Larry Williams

One reason perhaps for the delay in getting to trial has been Hana’s age. She was thought to be 13 when she died.  Also in November 2012, the judge agreed to the prosecutor’s request to exhume Hana’s body to confirm her age. The exhumation took place in January 2013, but the findings were inconclusive. Lawyers are now trying to track down Hana’s Ethiopian uncle, who may have been present at Hana’s birth, and could thus verify her age.

Hana’s age matters because the “homicide by abuse” charge applies only to children younger than 16. My understanding is that the penalty for homicide by abuse is more severe than that of manslaughter by domestic violence. The prosecutors, on behalf of Hana, will argue for the Williamses to get the harsher sentence.


On June 7 2013, a brief hearing was held in Skagit County to work out administrative details for the upcoming trial, expected to begin July 22, 2013. It could last for weeks. I expect it will get a lot of media coverage.

Many people from the Ethiopian community and the adoption community will be there, to honor Hana, hoping that justice will be served for her. I will be among them. We can’t forget her.

On Mother’s Day: A Prayer for Hana Alemu (Williams)

This is a prayer for Hana Alemu, born in 1997 in Ethiopia, brought to Washington state in the US for adoption in 2008, died naked at night alone in the cold, locked outside her adoptive family home, on May 12, 2011: two years ago today, Mother’s Day. She weighed less at her death than she had at arrival 3 years earlier from Ethiopia.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana, may we learn from the loss of your life, that no child should ever suffer as you did.

May we remember and pray for your Ethiopian mother, keeping her in our hearts always.

May your Ethiopian family, those who knew you and those who grieve for you (whether angry, heartbroken, confused, prayerful) find healing and comfort.

May we adoptive parents deeply understand the responsibility we have, to care for and treasure our children.

May all parents who need help in caring for their children reach out and receive that help.

May adoption agency workers, child protective services staff, lawyers, police officers, and government officials receive encouragement and insistence that they do their difficult work conscientiously, aware that lives hang in the balance.

May justice be done.

May we never forget Hana.

A note:

I visited Hana’s grave this past Thursday (May 9), in anticipation of both Mother’s Day and the second anniversary of her death, May 12.

Hana's grave at Union Cemetery, Sedro-Woolley, WA

Hana’s grave at Union Cemetery, Sedro-Woolley, WA

As an adoptive mother of four children, including two daughters from Ethiopia, I have been both outraged and aching over Hana.

I wrote previously about Hana here.

Her adoptive parents Larry and Carri Williams have yet to go to trial. Hana’s body was exhumed and reburied in January, because there was a question about her actual age. If she is proven to be older (say, 16, at time of death), the charges against her adoptive parents could be reduced. Their next court date is in July.

Facebook group honors and remembers Hana. There is much interest in getting Hana a decent grave marker, and we hope that can happen after the trial concludes and justice is done.