Richland nanny’s fate goes to jury

Tri-City HeraldMay 7, 2013 

— Kelli A. Jacobsen is not a bad person, but almost two years ago she did something that she regrets to this day, prosecutors said Tuesday.

After staying up late watching movies with her best friend, the Richland nanny had to get up early the next morning to care for Ryder Morrison.

The 1-year-old was teething and fussy on June 22, 2011, and Jacobsen -- who wrote about her exhaustion in Facebook posts and text messages -- wasn't in the best shape to care for the boy and took things out on him, Prosecutor Andy Miller said during closing arguments in Jacobsen's manslaughter trial.

Just one day past his first birthday, Ryder was a vulnerable toddler completely dependent on the person who was caring for him at the time, the prosecutor said.

"What the evidence is, is that (Jacobsen) was tired, (Jacobsen) was frustrated, and out of her frustration and her being tired she either shook or hit, or shook and hit, Ryder in a reckless manner," Miller told jurors. "And it was that that caused his death."

Jacobsen's lawyer, Scott Johnson, argued that evidence during the past 21/2 weeks showed it was more of an issue of a bad mother.

Jacobsen stuck to the same story throughout the investigation, but there are inconsistencies in the statements and the testimony of Tawney Johnson, the lawyer said.

While a number of doctors testified in the trial that Ryder's fatal injuries likely happened within minutes to hours before he died on the operating table, Scott Johnson told jurors to remember that the Richland neurosurgeon said it could have been up to 24 hours before.

That's when Tawney Johnson was home alone with her son, when he may have fallen off the kitchen counter and, "Ryder isn't completely right from that moment forward," he said.

Jacobsen and her friend returned home that night before Ryder died to find him screaming in the arms of his mother, who was either mad or annoyed that he wouldn't go to bed, said Scott Johnson.

Once Ryder was asleep, Tawney Johnson left the house to visit a man she'd just started seeing, but sent a text to her nanny making sure Jacobsen didn't think she was a bad mom.

"The other question is what else did Ms. Johnson know about that night? What else (did she) know about that night that would make her a bad mom?" Scott Johnson said.

Jacobsen, 28, is charged in Benton County Superior Court with first-degree manslaughter with aggravating circumstances. The charge does not involve intent, but that she recklessly caused Ryder's death.

The case went to the jury of three women and nine men at 12:25 p.m. Tuesday after three hours of closing arguments. After lunch, the jurors spent three hours deliberating before heading home. They will resume talks this morning.

Tawney Johnson came home during her half-hour lunch break on June 22, 2011, and played with her son on the living room floor.

About a half hour after she left, Jacobsen called 911 to report that Ryder was unconscious and his eyes were rolling back into his head. She told paramedics she was in the kitchen when she believes the toddler fell while pushing or crawling on a popping lawnmower toy.

Doctors at Kadlec Regional Medical Center questioned the caregiver's story, saying it didn't fit his injuries -- a blood clot just above the brain -- that doctors described as abusive head trauma.

Miller and Deputy Prosecutor Laurel Whittier, recapping witness testimony, said Jacobsen's demeanor in the emergency room was not what doctors and nurses expected given "the serious and tragic circumstances."

Miller said medical experts testified the boy's injuries were not consistent with a short fall, but with severe whiplash.

Two doctors agreed if Ryder's injury happened earlier in the day or the night before, he wouldn't have been acting normal at lunch, the prosecutor said.

Miller argued there was no testimony contradicting the doctors that the injury could have happened before lunch.

And he reminded jurors, Jacobsen herself told detectives, "Tawney would never hurt Ryder."

Meanwhile, Jacobsen was the one with the boy when he hurt his arm a few months before his death, and at the time sent his mother a text: "Ryder hates my guts for sure."

"Ryder couldn't run away from the abuse. Ryder couldn't crawl away from the abuse. Ryder was helpless. Ryder couldn't tell anyone what was happening to him, and he couldn't tell anybody that he needed help," Miller told jurors. "... Listen to all the evidence and let Ryder's injuries speak for themselves. Then come back and give a verdict that gives justice for Ryder."

Scott Johnson argued that it is an emotional and sad case, but he said justice won't come by "convicting someone without evidence and turning a blind eye to all of the problems of the state's case."

In addition to the defense theory that the boy's mother is responsible, Scott Johnson said there will never be an explanation for Ryder's injuries because of botched police work by Richland and a failure to do genetic testing that could have shown a root cause.

Scott Johnson also pointed out that Tawney Johnson was home with her son when the boy started screaming and, after Jacobsen returned, the mother refused to hand over the crying Ryder, who was tightly swaddled on a warm June night.

Ryder had trouble sleeping that night and woke up with a painful scream again the next morning, leading Jacobsen to later text his mother at work that the toddler wasn't acting normal and didn't have an appetite, the lawyer said. Yet prosecutors and some doctors want the jury to believe "this is one gigantic coincidence" that Ryder was acting odd earlier that morning, he said.

"If Ryder is A-OK as the state tries hard to get you to believe, why did Ryder need more Tylenol at lunch? Because he's not," Scott Johnson argued. "That was the second dose that Ms. Johnson said to give to Ryder in two to three hours. That kid is not OK."

Prosecutors never presented evidence that Jacobsen was irritated or frustrated with Ryder in the 24-hour period up to his death, he noted.

"The state wants you to believe that in approximately 15 minutes, this young woman, for reasons we don't know, snapped and killed a child when there's been zero evidence in this case that there's been any problems at all" between the nanny and Ryder, Scott Johnson said.

He said the evidence or lack of evidence shows "at least 50 reasons to doubt that Kelli did this crime, and you only need one."

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