MOUNT VERNON — The way Larry and Carri Williams treated their two adopted children amounts to torture, a clinical psychologist testified Wednesday in the couple’s homicide-by-abuse trial.
Dr. Katherine Porterfield works with survivors of trauma and torture and has testified in federal court on the topic. She based her testimony, which ran all day Wednesday, on an extensive collection of information, transcripts and other documents about the case plus her own interview with the Williamses’ adopted son.
Larry and Carri Williams are charged with homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in the death of their adopted daughter, Hana, who succumbed to hypothermia and malnutrition in the family’s backyard in May 2011. They also are charged with first-degree assault of a child in connection with alleged abuse of their adopted son.
They have pleaded not guilty.
Porterfield’s conclusion that the children were tortured confirms earlier testimony from a retired top military lawyer who is an expert on the subject.
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.
Defense attorney Rachel Forde three times moved to exclude Porterfield as a witness because she is not an expert on Washington state law. Judge Susan Cook denied all three motions.
Porterfield said two overarching themes in the children’s treatment led her to believe they were tortured: that it was “systematic, planful (and) deliberate,” and that it combined physical and psychological aspects.
Punishments the Williams children got were “not impulsive or off the cuff” but were part of a consistently administered plan to curb rebelliousness, she said.
The adopted children got more severe and more frequent punishments than the biological ones, and they intensified over time, Porterfield said, based on testimony she read from the biological children.
Torture typically inflicts both physical and psychological anguish, Porterfield said. To that end, she said, many of the discipline techniques the Williamses used amount to torture:
- Humiliation: Hana was told to shower with a hose outside instead of using the family bathroom. The other children described her in interviews as “filthy, dirty and diseased,” Porterfield said. Her adopted younger brother was sprayed with cold water in the bathtub or from the hose if he wet his pants. Not only is the cold unpleasant, being hosed off outside in various states of undress is humiliating, especially for an adolescent girl, Porterfield said.
- Degradation: In interview transcripts Porterfield read, the biological children described Hana’s hair being cut short because she cut the grass wrong, and Hana being told not to speak unless spoken to or asked a question. Not being allowed to speak is “particularly degrading,” Porterfield said.
- Physical isolation: The adopted children started out sleeping in shared bedrooms with their new brothers and sisters, but were later sent to a shower room, barn or closet. Sometimes Hana was left in the closet for 24 hours at a time, which can be physically disorienting, Porterfield said. Being locked in a shower room all night was likely worse for the adopted son because he is deaf, she said.
- Social isolation: The adopted children ate many meals separate from the rest of the family and were left out of holidays or denied birthday celebrations if they disobeyed. “One of the children said it was ‘the norm’ in the house — the abnormal situation would be her with everyone,” Porterfield said. This can have “serious psychological consequences” for a child, she said.
- Food: The adopted children’s lunch sandwiches were doused with water and their dinner was often cold leftovers topped with frozen vegetables. It’s emotionally distressing that “their family who eats regular food feels they don’t deserve regular food,” Porterfield said. Hana sometimes went a day or two without any food, one of the biological sons said in the materials Porterfield read about the case. Then she’d sneak food in the middle of the night and be punished more for that, creating an “expanding cycle,” she said. Missing meals and eating unpalatable food are physically unpleasant, but beyond that, being served different food than the rest of the family and sent outside to eat it alone tells a child she is “less than,” Porterfield said.
- Corporal punishment: “The amount of hitting that appears to be happening to this child was remarkable,” Porterfield said of Hana, citing interviews in which the biological Williams children said she got “by far the most spankings of anybody.”
People who are tortured can have mood problems and become depressed, anxious, nervous, frightened, disorganized and distressed, Porterfield said. They can even dissociate from the experience, which it appears Hana did, she said, citing statements from the biological children about Hana’s “blank face” or “evil stare” while being spanked.
The adopted boy has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his therapist pointed in her testimony to the Williams home as the cause. The boy has flashbacks and nightmares, and has said he fears Larry and Carri Williams will climb in the window of his foster home and hurt him.
“He said he thought he would be the next to die,” she said.
Porterfield said the boy got “very tense and nervous” when she interviewed him.
“He can’t stop thinking about what happened to him,” she said.
The boy also describes feeling worthless, blaming himself for what happened and thinking he could have stopped Hana from dying, Porterfield said.
Although his experiences in Ethiopia can also be risk factors for psychological problems later on, what the boy told Porterfield led her to believe the Williams home traumatized the boy, she testified.
A child is building a sense of self and relationships in the world, Porterfield said, and the message the adopted Williams children got was, “You’re not valuable. You’re not safe.”