Mistrial declared in death of Richland toddler

Tri-City HeraldMay 10, 2013 

Tawney Johnson Mistrial

File photo: Tawney Johnson leaves Benton County Superior Court with her father, Derek Johnson, left, after a mistrial was declared in May 2013 in the case involving the death of her toddler son, Ryder Morrison. Nanny Kelli A. Jacobsen, 28, was charged with first-degree manslaughter with aggravating circumstances.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

— Twelve jurors believed Ryder Morrison's death was someone's fault, but the Benton County panel couldn't agree on who did it.

After 19 hours of deliberations during four days, the jury in the manslaughter trial of Kelli A. Jacobsen -- the toddler's live-in nanny -- revealed Friday that they were at an impasse.

Their votes varied from the beginning. They started out evenly split, then at one point near the end hit 11 in favor of a conviction, one juror told the Herald.

But when the tally shifted again to nine for "guilty" and three for "not guilty" after lunch Friday -- just before they were to return to court -- the panel knew they never would reach a unanimous decision.

Dozens of loved ones for both sides packed the courtroom in Kennewick, hoping for a resolution to the emotional case.

When it became clear that it was a hung jury, Judge Vic VanderSchoor declared a mistrial.

Prosecutor Andy Miller said he plans for a second trial in Ryder's June 2011 death.

"It's been a real trying experience. It's been a real tough case to deal with," said the juror who agreed to talk after court on condition he not be named. "I had my mind made up one way and other jurors had their minds made up another way."

"Personally, I feel terrible," he said, about not being able to walk into the courtroom with a guilty verdict.

Jacobsen, 28, is charged with first-degree manslaughter with aggravating circumstances.

The 1-year-old Richland boy died on the operating table a day after celebrating his first birthday.

Doctors say his death was from abusive head trauma, which happened minutes or possibly up to 24 hours before he was rushed to the hospital.

Jacobsen was home with Ryder. His mother, Tawney Johnson, stopped home during her half-hour lunch break but was back at work when she got the call her son was going to Kadlec Regional Medical Center.

The defense tried to point the finger at Tawney Johnson, claiming maybe she did something to him while the two were home alone the evening of his birthday.

A juror said there were many things to consider, including the possibility that more than one person was responsible for the boy's injuries.

"There was an awful lot of information to take in and a lot of the medical information is hard for the average person to understand," he said. "This one was real tough, with the fact that it was a 1-year-old child that was killed. ... Somebody did something in the last few hours, maybe even in the last few minutes of his life. It caused his death and, yes, I believe that."

Jacobsen's trial started April 22 and went to the jury Tuesday afternoon.

Jurors had three questions for the judge during deliberations, and were told to rely on their memory, notes and the jury instructions about the law.

Then at 11 a.m. Friday, the jury sent the judge a statement signed by the forewoman.

"During our deliberation we have come to an impasse. Several attempts were made during our discussion to carefully re-evaluate our notes, witness testimony, and the evidence presented. We cannot reach a verdict and request further instruction."

After gathering in the jury box in open court two hours later, VanderSchoor asked if there was "a chance of the jury reaching a verdict in a reasonable amount of time."

The forewoman said no.

VanderSchoor excused the jurors, saying he appreciated their efforts and service.

Soon after, Carey Gavaert, Ryder's grandmother, and her husband left the courtroom in a rush, visibly upset with the jury's decision.

The other two dozen supporters there for Ryder, including his mom and grandfather Derek Johnson, remained behind to talk with prosecutors about what will happen next.

Later, Derek Johnson said the family didn't want to talk about the mistrial.

A new hearing is scheduled Thursday. Jacobsen remains out of jail without bail.

Miller said Tawney Johnson's family is disappointed they have to go through another trial.

"They've been a wonderful family to deal with, but they're still grieving the loss of little Ryder, and life is kind of on hold until this is resolved," he said.

Miller said baby homicide cases are very challenging, in part, because they rarely have witnesses to the crime, and there is a lot of complex medical evidence.

He said he plans to work with the doctors to get them to explain their findings more simply.

Defense attorney Scott Johnson said they are relieved the jury took time to review the evidence before reaching a conclusion.

"I was confident that it would be very difficult for 12 people to agree one way or another on this case, so we're happy with the decision. Obviously an acquittal would have been better for Kelli," he said. "I don't know that if we tried this case 100 times it wouldn't come out to have some on one side and some on the other."

Johnson said it's expected when there are "two strong theories about what might have happened," and it's too difficult for the jurors to say beyond a reasonable doubt it was one (theory) over the other."

He said he hopes Miller decides against a new trial. Johnson, who will continue to represent Jacobsen, said she maintains her innocence.

"You can imagine the stress of going through something like this. It's been crushing on her," Johnson said. "She's held up incredibly well. She's been very poised. She understood that this was a likely outcome and so today wasn't a surprise for her."

The juror said it's obvious the defense convinced some jurors of reasonable doubt, and obvious the prosecutor did not.

"If they try the case again, (prosecutors) have got their work cut out for them because there needs to be more things to prove things in a better manner and make things more definite," he said, referring to the timing of Ryder's injuries.

Just hours after the mistrial, the juror said he already had heard about comments circulating online that said the jurors were cold-hearted for not convicting Jacobsen, and that it should have been obvious who killed Ryder.

The man said everybody put a lot of thought into the deliberations.

"I took the evidence as it was presented to me by the experts, and listened to the cross-examination of the experts, and the time frame that was allotted by the experts for which the injuries occurred," he said. "And that's what I based my decision on."

"Our justice system is what it is, and that's how it works," he said.

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