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Clara Louise Edwards is escorted into the Catoosa County Courthouse in June 2014 for a bond hearing in the Jan. 1 death of 2-year-old Saharah Weatherspoon.
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Saharah Weatherspoon

RINGGOLD, Ga. — When Clara Louise Edwards found her 2-year-old foster child passed out, she thought the girl was asleep.

Minutes earlier on Dec. 29, 2013, the girl's older brother had run into Edwards' bedroom, telling her that Saharah Elise Weatherspoon had fallen. Edwards tried to wake her. It was too early in the evening to fall asleep, she said. If Saharah slept now, she would rise and cry early the next morning, disrupting the rest of the family's rest.

So Edwards stood the toddler up on her feet, hoping that would stir her. Nothing happened. She shook Saharah's arm. Nothing still. She pressed a wet rag against Saharah's face. She flicked water. She poured water. Nothing.

She ran through the hallway of her home, telling Saharah's brother to put on shoes, that they needed to go see the doctor. She put Saharah in a car seat, wrapped her in a blanket, lowered the window next to Saharah and drove. She called her husband, told him what happened. Her husband said he was on the way home from work and would ride to the hospital with them.

Edwards then drove in circles around her neighborhood. When her husband arrived, he took the wheel and yelled "Saharah!" over and over, hoping she would awake.

"I panicked," Edwards told investigators the next day during a 1-1/2 hour interview. "I didn't call 911. I wasn't even thinking 911. I was just thinking, 'Get her to the ER. Get her to the ER.'"

A video of that interview, which Edwards gave to a Catoosa County Sheriff's Office lieutenant and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent, played in Catoosa County Superior Court on Thursday, the third day of Edwards' criminal trial. Prosecutors have charged her with cruelty to children, felony murder and malice murder — the latter two charges each carrying life sentences.

At the crux of their case, prosecutors argue that Edwards' version of events does not line up with what doctors found when Saharah arrived at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger. And her version doesn't line up with the facts, prosecutors say, because she's hiding what really happened to Saharah: She abused the child until it was too late.

Medical records, presented by Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin and Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton, show that doctors found no oxygen in Saharah's brain when she arrived at the hospital. They also found a fresh blood clot, one that likely was the result of something that happened within hours of her arrival.

But in addition to those things, doctors also found evidence of an older blood clot, one that probably happened weeks or months earlier. They also found bruises covering Saharah's face, stomach, arms and back.

Prosecutors say this — in addition to disparaging testimonies from the workers at Saharah's daycare and the congregates at Edwards' former church — is proof that Edwards abused Saharah. Edwards' attorney, Dan Ripper, has argued that the older blood clot is really the result of abuse that Saharah received from at least one of her birth parents before the Division of Family and Children Services placed her in a foster home.

On Thursday, however, the lawyers' arguments gave way to Edwards' own version of events as the jury watched her interview. It took place the morning after Edwards brought Saharah to the hospital, while the toddler was still on life support.

During the interview, Edwards said she had not yet slept. But she talked openly about what she said happened that day, giving long, eloquent answers. She thanked the investigators for asking certain questions, allowing her to explain herself.

At one point, when Catoosa County Lt. Freddy Roden presented a theory about how Saharah got hurt from a fall, Edwards became excited, like the two of them had solved a mystery.

"There's nothing I can do but cooperate," Edwards said. "I didn't injure that baby. I didn't take a baseball bat and club her in the head or nothing like that. She's just a faller-downer."

Edwards explained that a nurse practitioner had recently diagnosed Saharah with cerebral palsy, though Roden says he never found evidence of that in Saharah's medical records. Edwards also told investigators that Saharah would sometimes become angry and lash out, injuring herself as a result.

She said Saharah sometimes banged her own head. Other times, she scratched herself. She fell often, too. One day, while giving Saharah a bath, Edwards said she turned to grab a towel. In the seconds while she wasn't looking, Saharah tried to climb out of the tub, slipped and hit her cheekbone.

On the day in question, Edwards told investigators that she and Saharah were in the kitchen when Saharah's ball slipped down the stairs. She said she told Saharah to stay, that she would get the ball. Then, she went to the dining room for some reason. She doesn't remember why.

She soon heard a thud, followed by a baby's cry. She said Saharah tried to slide down the eight wooden steps but lost control. Still, Edwards told investigators, Saharah seemed OK. She later fed Saharah green beans and potato salad, put her down for a nap, woke her up and let her play with her brother.

Later that evening, when she found Saharah passed out, she said that the child was next to her armoire. Edwards testified she thinks Saharah fell, causing the injury. At Roden's suggestion, she also said it's possible the injury occurred earlier in the day, when Saharah slid down the steps.

"For the rest of my life," said Edwards, who added she has five children and 12 grandchildren of her own, "I'll see that little girl, happy go lucky. But I'll also see her little limp body because of something I could have prevented."

In the courtroom Thursday, watching her own interview, Edwards cried.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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