Jury will consider man's own testimony in charges he shook Hixson baby to death

Staff photo La Shawn Pagán / Benjamin Brown, answers questions from his Lawyer Steven Brown before Judge Barry Steelman on Feb.11, 2022 in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

Jurors deliberated late into the night Saturday in the trial of a man facing murder charges in the 2018 death of a Hixson toddler, then went into recess until Monday.

They had important testimony to weigh, including the words of the accused, who took the stand Friday evening to testify in his defense.

Benjamin Brown, 30, is alleged to have inflicted mortal injuries on 2-year-old Annie Burkett Shell in 2018, as he babysat the child and her younger sister in the home he shared with his girlfriend, Brandi Giannunzio.

The girl, who was living with her grandparents Tiffany and David Shell at the time, died 12 days later from blunt force trauma to the head and chest, according to the findings of Dr. James Metcalfe, the Hamilton County medical examiner who performed the girl's autopsy. Metcalfe told jurors earlier in the week her injuries had been caused by repeated blows, such as punching, slapping or shaking.

Brown's defense team has argued it is possible the girl was injured prior to Giannunzio bringing her from the Shell house and before Brown was left alone with the girls. Giannunzio was at a hair salon a few minutes away just before an ambulance was called to take the girl to a hospital.

When Brown took the stand Friday, he told jurors the girl fell on the ground and began to have a seizure as he was babysitting her the morning of Aug. 9, 2018.

"As soon as she fell, I kind of freaked out and noticed that she was unresponsive," he said. "And that's when I was like 'Annie, Annie,' and I noticed that she was biting her tongue."

Executive Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams asked Brown why he didn't immediately call 911.

"I was sitting there talking to her, rubbing her little head," Brown said.

(READ MORE: Forensic Pathologist disagrees with Hamilton County medical examiner during trial of man accused of Killing Hixon girl)

He added that he didn't know the girl's last name or have any of her personal information, so he didn't want to call 911. Instead, he said, he called Giannunzio twice and told her to come home. When she returned from the Do or Dye Salon several minutes later, Giannunzio called 911, he said.

Brown also told jurors that several days after the girl was admitted to the hospital, he had taken part in a candlelight prayer service for the girl.

"You lit a candle for her but you never called 911 for her?" Williams asked. "You lit a candle for her, but did you give them [doctors] information? Did you ever make an attempt to speak to the doctor?"

"No," Brown said.

During closing arguments, defense attorney Steve Brown told jurors his client had dropped out of school at 15 years old and had been working ever since.

"For the past three days he's watched highly skilled, highly trained attorneys cross-examine. Highly skilled, highly trained doctors. Think about the courage that it took for this young man to testify, he knew what he was up against. Imagine the amount of courage that it took for [Brown] to walk up and sit in that chair, to look you in the eyes and testify."

As the prosecution made its final arguments, Williams responded to Brown's question about courage.

"When I hear courage, I think of soldiers, of firefighters, of officers who care for our community," Williams said. "I think of Tiffany Shell, who held her daughter while she took her last breath. The last thing I think of when I hear courage is the defendant."

Williams played back a video recording of Brown speaking with police several days after the child was admitted to the hospital.

"Look at him, laughing and going about his day - while Annie is fighting for her life - and walking out. Don't let that happen," Williams said. "There's no doubt that convicting this man will let your mind rest easy, find him guilty of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, and let your mind rest easy."

(READ MORE: Road rage shooter cleared of wrongdoing in Catoosa County grand jury)

If Brown is convicted on the charges of felony murder and aggravated child abuse, he could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.