Richland toddler's mom testifies at nanny's trial

Tri-City HeraldApril 26, 2013 

— A Richland mother broke down on the witness stand Friday as she recalled the last moments she spent with her 1-year-old son.

Home on a 30-minute lunch break, Tawney Johnson spent the time burning a CD and teaching Ryder Morrison how to play with one of his toys.

But when it came time to return to work, Johnson snuck out of the house without saying goodbye; otherwise the toddler would start crying. She left him in the care of her live-in nanny.

She didn't expect that little more than an hour later on June 22, 2011, she'd be saying her final goodbyes to her son after he died on the operating table at Kadlec Regional Medical Center.

Johnson and the toddler's father, Spencer Morrison, were given the chance to see their son one last time.

They held hands and walked into the pediatrics room together.

Johnson told other relatives to stay outside because she didn't want anybody else to see Ryder like that.

But Johnson couldn't finish describing what happened next before she bowed her head in court and began sobbing into her hands.

The court took a 15-minute recess so she could compose herself before finishing her testimony in the trial of Kelli A. Jacobsen.

Jacobsen, 28, was Ryder's live-in nanny. She's charged in Benton County Superior Court with first-degree manslaughter for allegedly causing the toddler's head injuries.

Jacobsen told paramedics that Ryder was either walking behind a push toy or had crawled on top of it when he fell. She said she was in the kitchen making a snack and heard a thud in the living room, then found Ryder.

Doctors and nurses at the Richland hospital testified Thursday that they questioned the caregiver's story based on the severity of Ryder's injuries, and knew there was a good chance he wouldn't survive surgery because his brain was bleeding and swollen.

He had celebrated his first birthday the day before.

Jacobsen's attorney, Scott Johnson, suggested to jurors that Ryder's mother caused the fatal injuries or "it wasn't at anyone's hands" and it may never be known just what happened.

Jacobsen has maintained her innocence.

Her trial started Monday and is expected to last three weeks. A 12-member jury panel with two alternates was picked Wednesday, but on Thursday morning one woman was excused after she gave a note to the judge.

Tawney Johnson spent about 11/2 hours on the witness stand Friday.

She explained that Ryder was about 3 weeks old when she started looking for child care. She was taking 12 weeks of maternity leave and knew she would need help when she went back to work.

She used a website to find three candidates, and decided Jacobsen was the best after interviewing her three times.

Jacobsen came over once a day for a week and Johnson "would shadow her" to see how she interacted with the baby. "It was for my comfort to know that she could handle him," Johnson said.

Jacobsen became full-time when Johnson returned to her job, and later moved in because she didn't have a reliable car and to help with scheduling problems.

Johnson testified that Ryder had colic as a baby and had "potty problems" that required treatment with a Spokane doctor. He also would wake up at 1:30 a.m. every day for a bottle, and when she tried to change that schedule he cried uncontrollably.

About a week or two before he died, Ryder's shoulder popped out of its socket while he was being pulled up as he was starting to learn to walk, she said.

He was left with a bruise, but she said the shoulder went back into place so she figured she would wait until his upcoming one-year appointment to get it checked out.

When shown her son's "popper toy," which is shaped like a mini lawnmower, Johnson said her son would crawl and hold onto the top of the handle but was unable to push it or stand with it.

On the day Ryder died, Johnson, said her son still was sleeping and nothing seemed unusual when she left early for work. Jacobsen later sent her a text message saying Ryder was fussy, so the mother gave the OK to give him some Tylenol.

During her lunch hour, Johnson said she was sitting on her living room floor burning a CD on her laptop when Ryder crawled over to her and pulled himself up.

"I was showing him how to hit these two (buttons) and I would put (the toy hammer) in his hand and I would make him hit it," she explained for jurors while pointing at the toy. "He would get so excited when I would let go. He was so excited, he would just hit everything."

When she left for work, Ryder was happy and appeared healthy without any signs of being sleepy or lethargic, she said. She'd only been back at the office a short time when a neighbor called saying Ryder was unconscious and being loaded into an ambulance headed for Kadlec.

Her best friend and co-worker rushed her to the hospital where she found her mom waiting with a chaplain.

"My knees started buckling because I had felt there was no reason for a chaplain to be talking to me," Johnson said. She then met with a doctor.

"He had said that Ryder sustained serious injuries to his head, and he knelt down in front of me and looked at me and said the babysitter's story wasn't adding up," she said. "And I started yelling at him."

After saying goodbye to her son, Johnson said she was interviewed for a few hours by Detective Dean Murstig at the Richland Police Department.

Jacobsen's attorney did not question Ryder's mother, instead saying she has been subpoenaed by the defense and he will call her back to the stand later in the trial.

Earlier Friday, jurors heard testimony from Tawney Johnson's parents, Carey Gavaert and Derek Johnson.

Ryder's grandmother choked back tears as the jury watched a short video from her cellphone of the toddler trying to walk just nine days before he died.

Gavaert apologized after taking a long pause to cry, then explained, "I miss him."

Since Ryder's death, Gavaert said she hasn't been able to watch any videos of him. Her emotional testimony brought tears to the almost two dozen relatives and friends in court to support her family.

She also recalled the moment that Johnson showed up at the hospital, and said no mother wants to see their daughter like that.

"It's a reaction that will stay in my head for the rest of my life," Gavaert said. "The agony of hearing your daughter scream and cry like that, I'll never forget it."

Also Friday, a radiologist said the trauma that caused Ryder's brain to be significantly swollen occurred minutes to hours before his death, not days.

The trial at the Benton County Justice Center resumes Monday.

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