RINGGOLD, Ga. — The prosecutor on Monday slid a picture under a projector, stretching onto a screen the image of a 2-year-old girl in a hospital bed, her head tilted back, unconscious.
Saharah Elise Weatherspoon's foster parents had driven her to T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger on Dec. 29, 2013. Her foster mother, 60-year-old Clara Louise Edwards, told the doctors Saharah had fallen twice that day — once tumbling down the stairs while chasing a ball and once crashing from a wardrobe that she attempted to climb.
Now, two years after Saharah's death, during the opening day of a murder trial of Edwards, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin asked a witness to point out all the injuries she saw in the photo of Saharah. A neck brace was wrapped around her and tubes snaked into her mouth and nose.
She had scratches on her nose, said Dr. Annamaria Church, the medical director of child protection at Children's Hospital. Franklin slid in another picture. Saharah's lip was swollen, Church said. Franklin slid in another picture. Saharah's upper left arm was scarred.
Franklin slid in another picture. And another. And another. Bruises covered Saharah's forehead, inner right ear, right cheekbone, chin, hip, back, stomach, right elbow, right forearm.
"The fall down the stairs?" Church said, referring to Edwards' version of how Saharah got hurt. "That don't make no kind of sense."
She continued: "This child was beaten to death."
An autopsy revealed Saharah died from brain trauma. But Franklin and Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton argued Tuesday that the patchwork of bruises on the toddler's body are significant because they prove her death was not the result of an accident. The prosecutors believe the bruises show Edwards abused her foster child until she died.
They have charged Edwards with cruelty to children and felony murder, which prosecutors say means she killed the child while committing another crime — even if the death wasn't intentional. For good measure, they also have charged Edwards with malice murder, asking the jury to believe Edwards killed her foster child on purpose. Both charges carry life sentences.
Edwards' attorney, Dan Ripper, argued Monday that prosecutors are overlooking the threats of trauma in Saharah's life before the Department of Family and Children Services placed Saharah in the Edwardses' foster home as a 14-month-old in May 2013.
In 2013, Saharah's father, Ellis Weatherspoon, was arrested in Blue Ridge, Ga., on a charge of stabbing the girl's mother, then taking Saharah and her brother to a trailer. There, according to The Associated Press, Weatherspoon threatened to light all three of them on fire, though deputies intervened before he could act.
Saharah then stayed with the Edwardses from March through June. According to a DFCS report, Ripper said, the foster parents were doing good work and bonding well with Saharah. But, nonetheless, DFCS representatives moved Saharah and her 6-year-old brother back to their mother, Jennifer Palmer, for a "trial home placement." In September, police found methamphetamine in Palmer's car and the children returned to their foster home.
Workers at the Gingerbread House Child Care Center and congregates at a local church both reported concern that Edwards was abusing Saharah because they saw bruises on the child. But DFCS investigators did not substantiate either report.
Ripper said these injuries were the result of developmental delays. He said Saharah struggled to walk and fell down often. That's what happened the day she died, too.
"She did not kill this child," Ripper told the jury during his opening statement. "We believe the proof will show this child was abused since she was born. And when she unfortunately had an accident that day, that was the last straw."
When doctors saw Saharah at Children's Hospital, they performed a CAT scan. They found no oxygen in the brain. They also found a white splotch, which meant she had brain bleeding from an injury within hours of her appearance at the hospital. But next to the white splotch, they also found some black marks, showing them that Saharah had suffered from bleeding on the brain several weeks before the recent injury.
Prosecutors argue this is from Edwards' chronic abuse of Saharah. Ripper argues it could be from her birth parents.
"That most recent injury you saw would not kill somebody," Ripper said to Dr. Daniel Kueter, a neurosurgeon who worked on Saharah.
"Most likely it would not," Kueter said. "It's the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back."
Kueter also agreed with Ripper that, theoretically, Saharah could have suffered the injury from falling down the stairs, as Edwards told investigators.
During his own opening statement Monday, Norton said Edwards abused Saharah until the 2 year old was limp, lifeless and brain dead. He also told the jury that acquaintances heard Edwards refer to Saharah as "the evil one."
"This child has a demon in her," Norton said, trying to explain Edwards' state of mind. "Ms. Edwards, the defendant, was going to get that demon out."
The trial continues tomorrow morning.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.