A Criminal Court judge will rule whether photographs of an 18-month-old girl who died of blunt force head trauma will be allowed as evidence in the upcoming trial of the child's mother.
Traci Carpenter, 24, faces a Dec. 6 trial on an aggravated child neglect charge in connection with the April 27, 2006, death of her daughter Sierra Carpenter.
In a hearing Wednesday, Hamilton County Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston called Traci Carpenter's mother, Sue Petty, to the witness stand. Petty testified that she took care of Sierra for most of the two days before the alleged abuse that caused the child's death.
Petty's voice cracked and tears welled in her eyes as she testified that the only bruise on Sierra's body was on her forehead before the girl went back to Carpenter and her boyfriend Brian Rutherford.
Hospital and autopsy photos taken in the days after Petty saw Sierra show bruises all over the child's body and abuse consistent with whiplash-like trauma to the child, the county medical examiner testified.
Pinkston and Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams argued to Judge Don Poole that photographs showing a possible pattern of abuse leading up to Sierra's death be shown to the jury in the upcoming trial.
Carpenter's lawyers, Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss, argued that, since their client is charged with neglecting to report abuse on specific dates that caused Sierra's death, any nonfatal, previous abuse evidence cannot be shown to the jury. The indictment against Carpenter, who now is visibly pregnant, refers to her lack of action on April 24 and 25, 2006.
Sierra died on April 27, 2006, of what Hamilton County Medical Examiner Dr. Frank King said was "blunt force trauma" to the head, which caused brain swelling and bleeding.
King testified Wednesday that he found it "disturbing" that no one had noticed the body bruising on Sierra and reported it. But, he said, the actual fatal blows to her head may not have shown any warning signs that an average person would recognize.
"I don't know any logical explanation that they would think the child would get sick and die of these contusions," King testified.
Davis repeatedly referred to the charge against Carpenter that she either "failed to render aid or failed to intervene" for Sierra when the girl was injured. Pointing to King's testimony, he insisted it would be difficult for a person without medical training to recognize brain swelling.
"It's not what she should have known," Davis said. "It is what she knew."
On April 25, 2006, two days after Petty took care of Sierra at her home, Rutherford brought the toddler to the Dallas Bay Fire Department when the child was having trouble breathing. Sierra was taken to Erlanger hospital, where police photographed multiple bruises on her head, neck, face and inner thighs while she was being treated.
King testified that the injuries that killed Sierra likely happened two to three days before she died.
Rutherford faced charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child neglect in a November 2008 trial. A jury found him not guilty on both counts.
Poole previously ruled that testimony from Rutherford's trial alleging that Carpenter abused Sierra will not be allowed in her trial.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...