published Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Evidence limits sought in trial of woman charged in death of toddler

Traci Carpenter listens during a 2011 hearing in Criminal Court.
Traci Carpenter listens during a 2011 hearing in Criminal Court.
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Lawyers for a woman awaiting trial on a child neglect charge in the death of her 18-month-old daughter want a Criminal Court judge to limit evidence of possible abuse not related to the child's death.

Defense attorneys Lee Davis and Stevie Phillips argued that their client, Traci Carpenter, 25, couldn't have known nonfatal bruising on her daughter Sierra's body were signs of abuse that would lead to the little girl's death.

Carpenter faces a Sept. 4 trial on a charge of aggravated child neglect. If convicted, she faces a sentencing range of 15 to 60 years.

Phillips told Judge Don Poole in a Monday hearing that a similar case in which the mother of child killed by abuse gives guidance on what the jury could hear. She said the Tennessee Supreme Court opinion showed that aggravated neglect came about only when the parent failed to render medical assistance to a child who suffered a fatal injury.

But prosecutors Neal Pinkston and Cameron Williams told Poole the "pattern" of abuse shown on Sierra's body during the time she was in the care of Carpenter and her then-boyfriend Brian Rutherford showed the mother knew abuse was ongoing.

"[Carpenter] failed to act and, as a result of that failure, the child died," Williams told Poole.

Phillips and Davis argued that evidence and testimony of other bruising or nonfatal injuries on Sierra could prejudice the jury against Carpenter and result in an unfair trial.

Davis noted that the close similarity between Carpenter's case and the one he cited from the state Supreme Court would mean trial results could be reversed if Poole allowed evidence of nonfatal abuse.

Poole said he would issue a written ruling on the motion.

Carpenter's mother, Sue Petty, testified in a November hearing that when she left Sierra with Carpenter and Rutherford, the child had one bruise on her forehead.

Autopsy photos taken shortly after Sierra's death on April 27, 2006, showed bruising all over her body and whiplashlike trauma. A blunt force blow to her head was seen by Hamilton County Medical Examiner Frank King as the cause of death.

King testified in the November hearing that it was "disturbing" no one noticed the bruising on Sierra's body, but that the actual fatal blows may not have shown symptoms the untrained person would recognize.

In 2008, a jury acquitted Rutherford on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child neglect.

Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or tsouth@timesfreepress.com.

about Todd South...

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 ...

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