MOUNT VERNON — After Hana Williams died in May 2011, her adoptive parents told their remaining children not to tell police or Child Protective Services about some of their discipline methods, their son testified Thursday.
“Um, they said not to mention anything about spanking, and not to talk about the shower room or the closet,” Jacob Williams said.
Larry and Carri Williams are charged with homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in Hana’s death, and with first-degree assault of a child in connection with alleged abuse of their younger adopted son.
They have pleaded not guilty.
Jacob, 18, and his 16-year-old brother were the fourth and fifth biological Williams child to take the stand in their parents’ trial.
Prosecutors have granted the two sons, who have been living with cousins in Spokane, a form of immunity in exchange for their testimony. The two had said through their attorneys they intended to assert their Fifth Amendment rights not to answer questions on the stand, doubling down on that plan after their adoptive brother testified they hit him in the same ways their parents did.
The Williams children “thought it was awesome” their parents were adopting two Ethiopian children, Jacob said. The two new children seemed energetic when they first came, and Hana “was quiet but happy,” he said.
But soon, the adopted boy — about 7 years old at the time, and deaf — started lying and disobeying, Jacob said. He could not name any specific examples of either adopted child disobeying, but later said things like not standing in the exact spot they were told to stand could elicit a punishment.
Children in the Williams home were spanked with a piece of plastic tubing, a glue stick, a belt or a wooden spatula, Jacob said. Larry and Carri, or sometimes the three oldest boys, typically doled out a specific number of swats for specific actions, he said — for instance, 10 for lying.
There was no maximum number of times a child could be hit per day, Jacob said Thursday. In a deposition last year, he said the adopted boy was hit an average of 30 times a day.
After her first year in the Williams home, Hana “probably got a spanking almost every day,” Jacob said. By the next year, the adopted boy did, too, he said.
Most spankings were to a child’s rear end, he said, but the adopted children were also hit on their heads, hands, legs and feet.
“Dad would spank them on the head and I don’t think Mom ever did that,” Jacob said.
The adopted children were sometimes given cold leftovers and frozen vegetables to eat outside, away from the rest of the family, who never ate those things, Jacob said. In the final six months of her life, Hana was eating about two meals a week outside regardless of the weather, he said.
They could miss meals altogether for transgressions such as not doing their homework correctly, but were given a bigger meal than usual the next time they ate, Jacob said. Hana occasionally went “a day or two” without a meal, he said, but he couldn’t remember why.
The biological children rarely, if ever, missed a meal while the adopted children lived in the home, Jacob said.
Hana was locked up at night in a barn, shower room or closet because she’d been caught stealing leftover dinner food, Jacob said. The closet became Hana’s bedroom during the final six months of her life, he said.
Hana was locked in the closet with a sleeping bag but no toilet and no control over the light switch, all night and sometimes for as long as six hours during the day, Jacob testified. Carri Williams often played gospel or classical music, or an audiobook of the Bible, from outside the closet, he said.
The night Hana collapsed in the family’s backyard and succumbed to hypothermia and malnutrition, Jacob had been doing school work but checked on her occasionally during the five or six hours she was outside, Jacob said.
“She didn’t really look happy,” he said.
At one point, Carri Williams had Jacob go out and hit Hana five times with a switch and direct her to exercise to keep warm, he said.
Another time, Carri went out herself and hit Hana on the backs of her legs with a switch, the 16-year-old son testified.
A forensic pathologist who conducted Hana’s autopsy pointed out long, straight marks on the backs of her legs that indicated she could have recently been hit “at least 14 times” with an implement like the plastic piping the Williamses used on their children.
Also on Thursday, clinical psychologist Katherine Porterfield concluded her testimony. Porterfield, who works with trauma and torture survivors, spent all day Wednesday on the stand explaining her conclusion that the Williams children were tortured.
People’s experiences early in life, particularly of “extreme adversity” and neglect, can affect how they handle stress later on, she said.
The way the adopted children responded to their treatment in the Williams home could have been shaped by their experiences in Ethiopia before they were adopted, Porterfield said, noting she does not know what life was like for these children in Ethiopia.
The adopted boy, who is now about 12, explained during the investigation of the case that the orphanage he was at in Ethiopia was prison-like, defense attorney Rachel Forde pointed out. Porterfield said that could have affected the way he experienced being locked in a shower room at night at the Williams home.
Studies show more international adoptees are referred to mental health services, but the majority are well-adjusted and present fewer problems than domestic adoptees do, Porterfield said. The age at which a child is adopted does not affect behavior problems, she added.
In the depositions Porterfield reviewed, biological Williams children described Hana as “rebellious,” but could not name many examples to back it up.
“She’s called rebellious so often (in the children’s testimony), I pictured this child as more out of control than it seems she was,” Porterfield said.