Defense questions boy's mother in Richland nanny trial

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldMay 3, 2013 

The defense on Friday tried to paint Tawney Johnson as an absentee mother who often handed over the care of her young son to their live-in nanny.

If Ryder Morrison's first birthday was such a significant day, Scott Johnson asked, then why did the mother make plans that night to visit a man she wasn't yet officially dating?

Tawney Johnson -- who is not related to the lawyer -- made it clear to jurors that she only left her Richland house after her son was asleep.

She also pointed out that the family had celebrated Ryder's big day with a party the previous weekend, so his actual birthday was a low-key event with the mom and son going to the skatepark after work.

Ryder died the next day, June 22, 2011, from abusive head trauma. Doctors tried to save the boy's life in surgery after he was rushed to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in an unconscious state.

The toddler's nanny, Kelli A. Jacobsen, is on trial in Benton County Superior Court for first-degree manslaughter with aggravating circumstances.

Jacobsen, 28, has denied the allegations.

Scott Johnson told the jury in opening statements that the defense believes the mother may have been responsible for Ryder's fatal injuries. The attorney didn't question the mother in the first week of trial when she was called as a witness by prosecutors, and waited to bring her to the stand for his own case Friday.

Johnson asked the mother, if she was out late on her son's birthday and had to get up early for work the next morning, who was going to care for Ryder after she got off work.

Tawney Johnson said even though she only got a couple of hours of sleep, she was fine and planned to spend that evening with her son. She told the defense attorney that because it wasn't an everyday occurrence, she wasn't sure if she'd be too tired to be with her son after a long day.

"I don't know. I've never done that," she replied. "Guess I would have known if (Ryder) was still here."

Prosecutor Andy Miller countered that unlike Jacobsen, Tawney Johnson wasn't the one texting or posting on Facebook that day that she was tired.

Miller also reminded jurors that the mother cooperated with Richland police during the investigation. Tawney Johnson said she replied "absolutely" when detectives asked if they could search her cellphone and go into her Facebook account.

The defense suggested that Tawney Johnson wasn't so affected by Ryder's death, because hours later she opted to go to John Roberts' home for the night instead of staying with her family. Tawney Johnson and Roberts had known each other since February 2011 but weren't yet boyfriend and girlfriend.

Miller later followed up on that line of questioning, asking the mother if there was something in Roberts' background that made her think he would understand her situation.

"His best friend was murdered," Tawney Johnson said. She and Roberts became an official couple after Ryder died, and they now have 7-month-old twins.

Tawney Johnson, who was raising Ryder after splitting from his father, hired Jacobsen to watch her baby when she returned to work after a 12-week maternity leave. She eventually asked Jacobsen to move in to cut down on her transportation problems.

After calling 911, Jacobsen told paramedics that she'd been in the kitchen fixing a snack for Ryder when she heard a thud in the living room. She found the toddler on his back, unresponsive with his eyes rolling up into his head.

Jacobsen said Ryder might have been walking behind a push toy or could have climbed on top of it when he fell about

6 inches.

A doctor at the Richland hospital told Jacobsen her story didn't fit Ryder's injuries.

Prosecutors have called a number of medical experts, with many testifying that the injuries occurred minutes or hours before the toddler went to the hospital. A Seattle-based pediatrician said the boy also had arm, leg and shoulder fractures that showed signs of healing, which led him to believe Ryder was an abuse victim.

On Friday, Tawney Johnson was asked by the defense to review the transcript of an interview with police. She said that Jacobsen was the one who brought it to her attention a few months before the death that Ryder's left arm was injured.

Miller had the mother read a text message from Jacobsen in which the nanny talked about Ryder coughing hard, screaming and getting his arm stuck in the high chair.

"So it's fair to say that Kelli was the first person to notice Ryder hurt his arm because she was there when it happened?" Miller asked.

"Yes," Tawney Johnson said.

She explained that the toddler had some pain with his arm, so she asked her own mother if she'd ever popped her arm out of the socket and if it would bruise internally. Her mother told Tawney that she "was a worry wart," so she didn't immediately take her son to the doctor.

The defense asked Tawney Johnson if she ever physically disciplined her son.

She said she'd tell Ryder "no no," and if he put his hand on an electrical outlet or somewhere he shouldn't, she would move it "and just smack his hand lightly, but it wasn't anything that would leave a mark."

Ryder also had started yelling sometimes, so the mother said she'd put a couple of fingers over his mouth to quiet him but it didn't hurt him.

Jacobsen's best friend, Amy Graves, finished her testimony Friday morning.

On Thursday, Graves told the jury that the night before Ryder died, she came home with Jacobsen and Tawney Johnson told them, "Ryder is really pissing me off tonight."

Miller pointed out that Graves used a different word earlier when describing the run-in for police.

"She said it's so annoying. This is so annoying, him crying, not going to bed," Graves read from the interview, which occurred four months after the death.

Miller asked if Graves' memory of the conversation was better then or now.

"It was more fresh in October 2011, but I've also had a lot of time to remember what happened," Graves testified.

Also Friday, Scott Johnson said there was a security issue in the courtroom.

The lawyer said Jacobsen's family and friends told him that Ryder's grandfather, Derek Johnson, had looked at the defendant's supporters as he walked past them during recess and called them two obscenities.

Scott Johnson said it was unacceptable and ridiculous, and asked that Derek Johnson be removed from the proceedings.

"This case should not be run by intimidation," he said. "It's absolutely inappropriate to intimidate anyone in this courtroom."

Miller told the judge that maybe something was said, but he didn't hear anything. He added that Tawney Johnson also has told him she's felt intimidated when she's gone into the bathroom during recesses.

Judge Vic VanderSchoor had Derek Johnson stand up in the front row and asked, "Did you say that?"

"No," the grandfather answered.

Jacobsen's supporters all gasped, with a couple raising their hands to talk to the judge.

VanderSchoor didn't have Derek Johnson kicked out of the trial, but warned if he gets any more reports of similar activity from audience members, he will have them removed.

"In the courtroom you need to keep your emotions in check," VanderSchoor said. He recognized that it is an emotionally charged case but told everyone they need to keep it outside.

The trial continues Monday morning in the Benton County Justice Center.

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