MOUNT VERNON — Attorneys made opening arguments Friday afternoon in the trial of a Sedro-Woolley couple accused of abusing their adopted daughter to death and assaulting their adopted son.
Larry and Carri Williams are charged with homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in the death of Hana Williams, and first-degree assault connected with alleged abuse of their younger adopted son.
Each has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Hana was found lying dead in the mud in the family’s backyard in May 2011. An examination found she died of hypothermia hastened by malnutrition and a stomach condition.
Prosecutors intend to prove the Williamses “recklessly caused” Hana’s death via a “pattern or practice of abuse” and an “extreme indifference to human life,” and that they caused “substantial bodily harm” to their adopted son.
In their opening statements, attorneys for each parent discounted these allegations, reminding jurors that what some might consider questionable parenting practices do not necessarily amount to a crime.
For the homicide-by-abuse charge to apply, prosecutors also must prove Hana was younger than 16 when she died. The girl’s exact age has been at issue throughout the investigation.
The jury of 10 men and five women was sworn in Thursday. The whole group will sit through the trial, then 12 will be randomly chosen to deliberate. Judge Susan K. Cook explained three alternates are needed because the trial is expected to last four to six weeks, when a few jurors could have emergencies that remove them from the jury.
Prosecutor Rosemary Kaholokula started the afternoon off by relating the children’s path from Ethiopia to adoption by the Williamses in 2008, meeting their new parents for the first time when they arrived in the United States to live with them.
She described the Williamses’ home, with seven biological children, 5 acres, trees, a barn — a “childhood dream home.”
“Unfortunately for (the two adopted children), that dream turned into a nightmare,” she said.
Kaholokula said Larry and Carri Williams abused and tortured the children “in the guise of discipline or punishment.”
She said the adopted children were hosed down, forced to sleep in the barn or a closet or shower room, hit with various implements, excluded from family events and holidays, and not allowed to communicate with their siblings.
The adopted children were sometimes given cold leftovers and frozen vegetables outside away from the family, and sometimes not allowed to eat at all, Kaholokula said.
“The night before Hana died, she slept in the closet,” Kaholokula said, explaining sometimes the girl spent as long as 24 hours there. “… That’s not discipline.”
Hana was, for about a year, instructed to use a Honey Bucket outside instead of the family bathroom. Her hair, which she loved, was “virtually shaved off” once as a punishment, Kaholokula said.
“By the time she died, Hana was 5 feet tall, almost 80 pounds, practically bald, resigned to a life of cold showers, port-a-potties and isolation,” she said.
The transgressions that brought these punishments included poor handwriting, not making the bed a certain way, leaving clothes on the floor or sneaking sweets, Kaholokula said.
The night Hana died, she had been outside for several hours and it had started to drizzle. At one point, Hana removed some of her clothes — a common sign of hypothermia — and collapsed. Her parents and paramedics could not resuscitate her, and she was pronounced dead at the hospital about an hour and a half after being found.
Carri Williams’ attorney Laura Riquelme said in her opening statement that her client tried to bring Hana inside, but the girl refused. Hana would sometimes throw herself on the ground as an “attention-getting mechanism,” Riquelme said, and Carri thought that night was no different.
Riquelme told jurors the family had noticed marks and scars on the adopted son’s body when he arrived, and the family was not responsible for any injuries.
She further argued the adopted children got just as much food, with just as much nutritional value, as the other children. She said decisions such as getting the Honey Bucket or making Hana sleep in the closet, while at times “excessive,” did not cause the girl’s death.
“We are not here to have a trial on whether Carri is the Mother of the Year,” Riquelme told the jury.
Larry Williams’ attorney Cassie Trueblood made similar arguments, adding that the Williamses regret some decisions, including getting the Honey Bucket.
She further explained Larry did not know the details of what happened in the home while he was at work for often 60 hours a week. Trueblood painted Larry as the more compassionate parent, who would always give his kids a bigger scoop of ice cream than Carri did, and who at times questioned her choices about discipline.
Trueblood instructed jurors to be critical of witness testimony that paints the Williamses as “suspicious.”
“At the end of this case, you will see that there is a difference between bad parenting and criminal behavior as it is charged here,” she said.
Witness testimony begins Monday.