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February 23, 2013

State continues testimony in third day of murder trial

Family, forensic experts testify for the state Friday

PALESTINE — The state continued its third day of testimony Friday in the capital murder trial of a Palestine woman accused in the death of her 16-month-old stepgranddaughter in May of 2010.

Jennifer Jill Whitehead, 41, is charged with capital murder for the May 5, 2010 death of Emma Nicole Whitehead who died at a Dallas hospital one day after being transported to Palestine Regional Medical Center for head and other injuries.

Emma had been in Jill Whitehead’s care, as well as that of her grandfather, Lance Whitehead, for about three months after being taken there by her parents, Derek Whitehead and Courtney Vaughan.

Vaughan concluded her testimony Friday, with the jury of five women and seven men also hearing from the eldest son of the defendant and two forensic scientists during the day’s proceedings.

In continuing testimony about Emma, Vaughan was asked about any ongoing treatment her young daughter may have required, particularly regarding her diagnosis of RSV at seven months of age.

“They told me she would have trouble with colds and bronchial problems up until about age 5,” Vaughan testified. “There was a prescription inhaler that was used for when she had bronchitis. It was not a daily treatment.”

Vaughan became emotional when shown pictures of her daughter, taken when Emma was left with her grandparents, at Easter and of the last time she saw her daughter about two weeks before she died.

“I never saw her looking like that (covered with bruises),” Vaughan responded tearfully. “I would have noticed it.”

 Jill Whitehead’s 15-year-old son, Brennon Hall, who now lives with his father in Haslett near Fort Worth, testified about his young life with his mother and her method of discipline in the home.

Hall testified that he lived with his mother up until his sixth grade year in Westwood schools. He said he spent every other weekend and school breaks with his father in the Dallas area.

He also talked about spending time with his stepfather, Lance, and said they got along well. He recalled Lance often escorting him and his brother, Jakob, to baseball practices and games.

In the mornings, Hall said he was responsible for getting Emma to her car seat and starting the car so that his mother could take the boys to school. He would spend the afternoons doing “normal boy things,” he said.

“I got home at 4 p.m. every day and would get on my game system or watch tv and I would do whatever my mom told me to,” he testified. “If I didn’t respond when she told me to do something, she would yell louder and I would usually do it.”

Hall also testified about time spent with his younger brother and how he would sometimes pick on him.

“Jakob would tell on me, my mom would call me in there and I would get a spanking,” he said. “It was usually with her hand, a belt or a brush. Sometimes she would slap me in the face. It happened almost daily.

“I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it at the time. I thought it was normal,” he continued. “It happened up until the time I left.”

Hall described an incident in which he was put in the corner of the bathroom and  hit by his mother continually with her fists. He also mentioned an incident with Emma in the same bathroom.

“I came home after school and heard Emma crying,” he said. “I went into my mother’s room and saw her standing in the middle of the bathroom with Emma in the bathtub and the shower on.

“(My mother) was screaming and Emma was crying,” he continued. “She was screaming, ‘shut up, be quiet, I don’t want to hear you.’”

Hall also recalled Emma receiving spankings from Jill Whitehead, usually using her hands, and said he would notice bruises on Emma’s legs and arms. He told defense attorneys that he had never witnessed or heard of Emma falling off anything.

“(Before she passed away) I saw no large bruises across her face,” he said.

Also on Thursday, Abby Whitmarsh, a forensic scientist in the serology and DNA lab at the Texas Department of Public Safety lab in Garland, was shown evidence she had processed from the scene of Emma’s death including a paper towel, a pair of boxer briefs, a playpen, a standard size pillow, king size pillow and a sock from the master bedroom.

Charged with seeking presumptive evidence of blood, semen or other biological fluid, Whitmarsh testified that the stains on the items did test positive for the presence of blood. Those items, she said, were stored in a freezer in preparation for future DNA extraction and analysis.

“Presumptive tests are used to note the presence of specific fluids, but does not identify them specifically,” Whitmarsh testified. “All seven stains tested were positive for blood and then were referred for DNA analysis.”

Trisha Kacer, another forensic scientist in the serology and DNA lab in Garland, testified as to the DNA results of the items tested by Whitmarsh.

“The stains on the socks, boxer shorts and playpen were all consistent with the DNA profile of the victim (Emma),” Kacer testified. “The paper towel contained a mixture that contained more DNA from the victim, with DNA from (Jill Whitehead) that could not be excluded.”

The pillows, Kacer testified, both contained mixtures of DNA from the victim, with the king size pillow having DNA from Jill Whitehead and Lance Whitehead that could not be excluded. Other results from the stains on the standard pillow could not be determined.

The trial held in the 369th District Court with Judge Bascom W. Bentley III presiding is set to continue at 9 a.m. Monday on the second floor of the Anderson County Courthouse. Expert testimony is expected to continue from the state.

Representing the state is Anderson County Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Watkins, with assistance from District Attorney Doug Lowe.

The defendant is being represented by Palestine attorney Stephen Evans and Dallas attorney Clipper Peale.

Under Texas law, the murder of a child under 6 years of age constitutes capital murder. Lowe previously reported that he would not be seeking the death penalty but a “life without parole” sentence.

Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at mrainwater@palestineherald.com

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