After hearing final testimony from three state witnesses, the state and defense both rested their case Thursday in the capital murder trial of a local woman accused in the 2010 death of a 16-month-old girl.
Jennifer Jill Whitehead, 41, is charged with capital murder for the May 5, 2010 death of her stepgranddaughter, Emma Nicole Whitehead, who died at a Dallas hospital one day after being transported to Palestine Regional Medical Center with head and other injuries.
Attorneys began Thursday with the continuing questioning of state’s witness Jay Russell, an investigator with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office who assisted in the investigation of Emma’s case.
Previous testimony revealed that Russell was responsible for taking photos of Emma at PRMC and at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, as well as of the interior and exterior of Whitehead’s home. He also assisted in gathering evidence from the scene.
Russell, along with Texas Ranger Rudy Flores, attended Emma’s autopsy on May 6 and conducted an interview with Whitehead and her attorney on May 18. Another interview with Whitehead was conducted on June 15, Russell testified, where she was asked to recreate the scene.
In cross-examination by Dallas defense attorney Lalon “Clipper” Peale, Russell was asked about the defendant’s relationship with her ex-husband and Emma’s grandfather, Lance Whitehead, who was living with Jill Whitehead at the time.
“Mr. Whitehead indicated that he was basically putting up with her to be with his son,” Russell testified. “He confirmed that Mrs. Whitehead was the primary caretaker of the children in the home.”
Peale also inquired about the scope of time that was being investigated by law enforcement — asking if they felt it was relevant that Lance Whitehead’s schedule had changed about the time bruises began appearing on Emma.
“That could be important in a case, but we did not investigate that,” he said. “Jill Whitehead told us that she was caring for Emma at the time of the injury and also verified that Lance was asleep.
“(She) told us that Lance had nothing to do with the injuries to Emma.”
Texas Ranger Flores was next to take the stand for the state, testifying to his role in the investigation and confirming what Russell had reported about his involvement in Emma’s case.
The investigation of the crime scene was difficult, Flores stated, describing the conditions of the Whitehead residence as one of “squalor.”
“It was dirty, disorganized and in overall disarray. It was unkempt, inside and out,” Flores testified. “It creates quite a bit of a challenge in investigations. This home had clutter, trash in open areas and everything was out of order and out of place.”
After evidence was gathered from the scene, Flores viewed photos of Emma taken by investigators at PRMC.
“Based on what I saw, the bruises and injuries indicate that the child had suffered abuse,” he said.
In the May 18 interview with Whitehead, Ranger Flores reported that its purpose was just to gain more information about the case, particularly about how Emma came to receive the fatal blow to the head.
“Jill Whitehead attributed that injury to a fall from the playpen, a low height,” he testified. “To me, it just didn’t seem feasible — to fall from a height less than 24 inches and receive a fatal injury.”
During the reenactment interview with Jill Whitehead on June 15, 2010, officers set up a scene of the living room of the residence by using furniture they had taken from the home.
“Jill Whitehead implied that Emma might have hit part of a wooden table when she fell from the playpen,” Flores testified. “It was my impression that she was trying to convey Emma’s head being on the ground, with part of her body on the chair and her feet in the air.
“I did not find it plausible,” he said.
The state’s final witness, Linda Hamill, was a cashier at Palestine’s Walmart Supercenter at the time of Emma’s death. She testified that she had contacted sheriff’s investigators about seeing the defendant with Emma on May 1, 2010.
After watching a video provided by the store, Hamill was asked about her interaction with Emma and Jill Whitehead while they were in one of the store’s self checkout lines.
“I noticed bruising all over (Emma), on her cheeks, the top of her head and her neck,” she testified. “The left side of her head appeared to have had hair pulled out and there was bruising there. There also was bruising between her fingers.”
Hamill then testified that she inquired about Emma’s injuries, asking if they had been in a car accident.
“(Jill Whitehead) told me that the baby was really clumsy and runs into walls a lot,” the witness stated. “The bruise on her face, she said her sister threw a computer and hit her in the face.”
When asked about how Emma looked, Hamill described the child as “sad” and that she appeared to be scared.
“I touched baby Emma’s hand and said something to her,” Hamill said. “She had her head down and kind of looked up at me. I noticed how sad she was and that she sat there like she was scared to move.”
The state rested its case, with the defense team resting its case as well after a brief consultation with the defendant. The defense’s only witness, forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas William Young, testified on Monday.
The jury is set to hear closing arguments and the reading of the deliberation order before entering into deliberations when the trial resumes at 10 a.m. today on the second floor of the Anderson County Courthouse.
369th State District Court Judge Bascom W. Bentley III is presiding over the trial.
Representing the state is Anderson County Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Watkins and District Attorney Doug Lowe. The defendant is being represented by Palestine attorney Stephen Evans and Peale.
Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com