Lawyers spar about injury interpretation in Benton County nanny trial

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldApril 30, 2013 

— Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller took a marker and repeated an investigator’s testimony in large black letters on a courtroom white board.

“In that conversation, Kelli said, ‘Tawney would never hurt Ryder,’ ” Miller wrote, echoing what former Richland Police Officer Ryan Hull said in court Tuesday.

Kelli A. Jacobsen, a live-in nanny for Tawney Johnson, is on trial for first-degree manslaughter in the death of 1-year-old Ryder Morrison. Hull was the first to arrive June 22, 2011, after Jacobsen frantically called 911.

Ryder died that day in surgery for a head wound after collapsing while in Jacobsen’s care. His death came a day after his first birthday.

Jacobsen told authorities the child fell while pushing or climbing on a toy. But her defense lawyer told jurors during his opening statements that the boy’s mother might be to blame for his injuries.

Prosecutors on Tuesday used Hull’s testimony to show that Jacobsen told officers more than once that Tawney Johnson wouldn’t hurt her son.

A Seattle-based pediatrician, Dr. Kenneth Feldman with Seattle Children’s Hospital, testified Tuesday that he believed Ryder suffered the fatal injury after the boy’s mother left the house. She came home for a short lunch break and left the toddler with Jacobsen when she returned to work.

Feldman, who specializes in child abuse cases, reviewed police and medical records. He said he noticed Ryder had arm, leg and shoulder fractures that showed signs of healing — something that doesn’t normally start for a week and a half to two weeks. He said this indicates a pattern of serial abuse.

While Ryder had a number of bruises, Feldman said they weren’t consistent with a child who fell after standing on a 6-inch toy, which is what Jacobsen told medics happened.

“These are highly directive to him being an abuse victim,” Feldman testified.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Scott Johnson questioned the basis for Feldman’s opinion that Ryder suffered from a “whiplash event.”

Scott Johnson said there have been no human experiments to show what happens when an infant is violently shaken.

“Therefore, what we have with the body of science is a lot of hypotheses,” Scott Johnson said.

Scott Johnson also wondered why Feldman couldn’t cite which specific police officer’s report he was taking information from, or if he was taking it from Jacobsen’s statement.

“Because you can’t say any of this, you’re basing your opinion on what you read, but you can’t tell us what you read?” Scott Johnson asked.

Scott Johnson then took Feldman to task for past cases he had diagnosed, which were detailed in a 2002 Seattle Post-Intelligencer story. The article said that on several occasions, Child Protective Services officials determined there had been no abuse in cases where Feldman said there was. Children then were returned to their families.

Feldman stood by his opinions in those cases, adding that he was sued by all five families mentioned in the story and all the cases were either dismissed or dropped. He added that he never had been successfully sued in the 2,000 child abuse cases he’s diagnosed.

Scott Johnson argued that the cases only were dropped because it is difficult to prove wrongdoing, since Feldman is considered a “mandatory reporter” by law, meaning he has to report possible child abuse allegations whether or not the report turns out to be accurate.

The trial is scheduled to resume today at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service