MOUNT VERNON — Witness testimony began Monday in the trial of a couple accused of abusing their two adopted children, one of whom died in May 2011.
The first witness: the surviving adopted son.
The boy, who is about 12 years old and deaf, told the court through sign-language interpreters that Larry and Carri Williams, or sometimes one of their biological sons, used sticks or belts to beat him all over his body.
He said the punishments worsened during the three years he was there, and that once, Larry hit his head so hard it bled. He also described being sprayed with a water hose if he wet his pants.
The Williamses each are charged with homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in the death of teenager Hana Williams, and with first-degree assault in connection with alleged abuse of their adopted son.
They have pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Hana was found lying dead in the backyard of the family’s Sedro-Woolley home. An examination found she died of hypothermia hastened by malnutrition.
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 Friday, defense attorneys reminded jurors that what some might consider questionable parenting practices do not necessarily amount to a crime.
Throughout his testimony, the adopted son did not look at Larry and Carri Williams. He has been in foster care for two years and the court ordered the Williamses to have no contact with him.
Since moving to his foster home, the boy has attended a public school for the first time since coming to the United States. The Williams children all were home-schooled.
“They told me that school was bad, and it was confusing to me why school would be bad,” the boy said through the interpreters.
The boy told prosecuting attorney Rosemary Kaholokula he thought Hana was about his current age.
For the homicide-by-abuse charge to apply, prosecutors must prove Hana was younger than 16 when she died. The girl’s exact age has been at issue throughout the investigation. Her body was exhumed in January, but tests were inconclusive.
Prosecutors started the afternoon by playing a recording of the 911 call Carri Williams made after finding Hana just after midnight. In it, Carri tells the operator her daughter is “between 14 and 16.”
Hearing herself describe Hana, “face down in the grass,” eyes half open, unresponsive and “not breathing at all,” Carri laid her forehead on the table in front of her and sobbed.
As the operator is heard instructing Carri Williams on how to perform CPR, Larry Williams sniffled into a tissue for the first time since the trial began.
After playing the recording, prosecutors called to the witness stand a pediatrician and consultant for the state Department of Social and Health Services. Dr. Frances Chalmers testified about her review of Hana’s medical records, especially data showing the girl lost 20 to 25 percent of her body weight between 2009 and 2011.
That level of weight loss “does not portray healthy nourishment,” Chalmers told Kaholokula.
The records Chalmers reviewed were mostly from 2008 and 2009, with one final set of information from the day Hana died, in 2011. For that reason, Chalmers said she could not tell how quickly Hana lost the weight.
An examination of Hana’s body showed she could have had a stomach condition called h. pylori chronic gastritis — irritation of the stomach lining caused by a particular bacteria. In 2008, she was treated for giardia, an intestinal parasite that also causes stomach pain.
Chalmers did not make those diagnoses in Hana, but she testified the two conditions could lead to weight loss by reducing a person’s appetite or causing vomiting or diarrhea.
Children with these problems are typically taken to a doctor, but Hana’s medical records show she was not, Chalmers said.
The final witness of the day was the Williamses’ immediate neighbor. She testified to not seeing the two adopted children as much as she saw the seven biological Williams children in the time leading up to Hana’s death.
Witness testimony resumes Tuesday morning. The adopted son has not finished testifying, but because of his age and hearing impairment, prosecutors asked that he be limited to 2.5 hours of testimony per day and not be required to testify on consecutive days.