After just over three hours of deliberations Friday, a jury of five women and seven men found a local woman accused in the 2010 death of a 16-month-old girl guilty of capital murder and a second charge of injury to a child.
The defendant, 41-year-old Jennifer Jill Whitehead, received an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for the capital murder charge for her role in the May 5, 2010 death of Emma Whitehead.
For the second charge, injury to a child, Whitehead waived her right to sentencing by the jury and accepted a plea bargain of 15 years, which was approved by presiding 369th State District Judge Bascom W. Bentley III.
Bentley also credited the defendant for the 941 days she had already served in jail.
Friday marked the ninth day of the capital murder trial, with the jury being selected on Tuesday, Feb. 19 and proceedings beginning on Feb. 20.
The state called numerous witnesses to the stand during its seven days of testimony including emergency medical personnel, law enforcement investigators, doctors, nurses, a medical examiner, three of the victim’s relatives and even a Walmart cashier who interacted with Emma and the defendant just a few days before the child’s death.
The defense’s lone witness was forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas William Young, who testified in the midst of state testimony on Monday due to time restrictions.
According to witness testimony, a 911 called was made at about 9:50 a.m. on May 4, 2010, with Emma’s paternal grandfather telling dispatchers that Emma was not breathing and that his ex-wife, Jill Whitehead, was performing rescue breathing on the child.
Emergency responders testified that when they arrived at the scene and began working on Emma, the victim was covered in bruises from “her head to the bottoms of her feet.”
After being intubated, the child was taken to Palestine Regional Medical Center and soon after flown to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, where she died from her injuries the following day, May 5, 2010.
Physicians caring for Emma and the medical examiner, Dr. Jill Urban, testified that Emma had received a fractured occipital bone of the skull, which bruised her brain and caused subdural bleeding that ultimately led to her death.
“Her entire occipital bone was broken down to the base of the skull, which is a sign of severe blunt force trauma,” Children’s Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Matthew Cox testified, also reporting Emma’s injuries were indicative of physical injuries in child physical abuse.
After conducting the autopsy, Dr. Urban’s official conclusion was that Emma’s death was the result of blunt force injury, with the manner of death deemed to be homicide.
“The bruising on Emma’s body was obvious and consistent with blunt force injury,” the medical examiner testified. “There were bruises to the left buttock and left thigh, from her hip to her thigh.
“There is a great deal of hemorrhaging in the scalp and tissue over the forehead, which is consistent with blunt force injury,” she also stated. “(In the right side) there are areas of hemorrhaging in the back of the head.”
Emma had been under the care of Lance and Jill Whitehead since February of that year, when her parents, Courtney Vaughan and Derek Whitehead, determined that they could not care for their daughters at the time.
Law enforcement officers, including investigators with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office and a local Texas Ranger, testified about interviews with Jill Whitehead and the physical evidence gathered during the investigation.
Several officers reported inconsistencies in Jill Whitehead’s account that Emma had fallen out of her playpen, with more information added to the story each time she was interviewed, one investigator testified.
“I would leave to go check for updates and so we could observe Whitehead during those times,” former ACSO Investigator Wendell Wilcher testified. “We noticed that some part of the story changed — that something new was added — each time we would leave the room and return to continue to interview.
“(The interview) would have stopped earlier if the story remained the same.”
When the interview first began, Wilcher explained, Whitehead was asked by officers what they should expect to see when they looked at Emma.
“At first she said, ‘nothing,’” Wilcher testified, “but by the end (of the interview) she had an explanation for every bruise.”
Friday’s proceedings included closing arguments from the state and defense attorneys followed by jury deliberations that started at about 1:30 p.m. and the reading of the verdict at about 4:45 p.m.
After sentencing, Emma’s mother and grandmother made victims’ impact statements to Jill Whitehead.
“On May 4, 2010, everything except the big love of our family changed,” Vaughan said. “It still feels like a nightmare.
“And worse than being heartbroken, I hear Alyssah (Emma’s older sister) talking to her sister when she is playing,” she continued. “I would not have made it through this without Alyssah. You would have killed me along with my baby.
“For the rest of my life I will never forget what you have done.”
Representing the state in the trial were Anderson County Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Watkins and District Attorney Doug Lowe. The defendant was represented by Palestine attorney Stephen Evans and Dallas attorney Lalon “Clipper” Peale.
Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org