MOUNT VERNON — The way a Sedro-Woolley couple treated their two adopted children was "severe in the extreme," an expert on torture testified Friday in the couple's homicide-by-abuse trial.
Larry and Carri Williams are accused of abusing the two children to the point that one of them died. They are now charged with homicide by abuse and first-degree manslaughter in Hana Williams' death, and with first-degree assault in connection with alleged abuse of their adopted son.
They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Hana died in May 2011 of hypothermia, hastened by malnutrition and a stomach condition, after hours spent in the rain in the family's backyard.
The two adopted children were allegedly hit with switches and belts, forced to eat wet or frozen food on the floor or outside, sent to sleep in a shower room, hosed down in the yard and, in Hana's case, prohibited from using the family bathroom.
They also were sometimes excluded from holidays and other family activities, witnesses have said.
This level of isolation, degradation and pain, coupled with Hana's malnutrition, would constitute torture, said John Hutson, a retired top attorney for the Navy and Marines.
Hutson has spent 12 years studying torture and has testified on the subject before Congress multiple times.
Larry Williams' attorneys questioned Hutson's qualifications as an expert witness in this case because his expertise is in military and international contexts.
Judge Susan K. Cook allowed his testimony as to what constitutes torture, so long as he did not give a legal definition for torture.
Watching someone one cares about be tortured is itself a form of torture, Hutson said. On the stand Wednesday, the adopted son's therapist attributed part of her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder to the boy having seen Hana suffer.
The boy testified Monday that his new parents and one of their biological sons beat him on the bottom of his feet. Hutson called this "one of the classic examples of torture" because the pain from it is instant and enduring but any marks from it are easily hidden.
Hutson has never communicated with any of the Williamses, including the surviving adopted child. The three-page report he submitted to the court before his testimony was based on hundreds of pages of information provided to him by prosecutors, although he admitted he did not read every word of it.
Hutson said another thing that struck him was that Hana was allegedly forced to shower naked outside, with little privacy, instead of in the house.
This is degrading, Hutson said, noting that the Army Field Manual specifically prohibits forced nudity.
Rachel Forde, an attorney for Larry Williams, mentioned some of the rationale behind the Williamses' discipline decisions. For example, they made Hana use a port-a-potty in the yard because of hygiene issues she had while on her period.
Hutson said that did not affect his conclusion that, overall, Hana was tortured.
"There's always a reason for (torture)," Hutson said, whether it's punishment or information-gathering. "But there's never a justification for it."
He also testified to the cumulative nature of torture: an action that is not stressful initially can become stressful if repeated over a long period of time. In this way, he said, what might have started as occasional discipline of the two children became something "more insidious."
"In my judgment, it's not a close case," Hutson said. "They both were unquestionably tortured."
Hutson was the only witness Friday morning. In the afternoon, prosecutors called up various friends and acquaintances of the Williamses.
A woman who met Carri Williams through a church group about a decade ago testified she overheard Carri telling other people she used a piece of tubing to discipline her children if they did not sit still in church. The woman never met the Ethiopian children and has not had contact with Carri since before they were adopted.
Rana Engelson of Stanwood, who has known the Williamses for 14 years, also testified about the piece of tubing, which she called a “spanking rod.” She said she only saw Carri Williams give her children “little swats,” and never saw Larry Williams physically discipline any of the Williams children. She never saw marks or bruises on the children, she said.
Brian Kruick, who is deaf and sometimes signed with Carri Williams at church, told the jury he would “quite frequently” try to sign with their deaf adopted son but Larry Williams would grab the boy and take him away.
“It was like he was trying to prevent us from having a conversation,” Kruick said through a sign-language interpreter.
He recalled Carri saying she would “lock Hana up” as punishment for stealing food from the kitchen at night.
Over the course of the three years Kruick attended the same church as the Williamses, Hana seemed to get thinner and change her behavior, he said.
“She looked really bad,” he said. “She was not happy.”
Kay Starkovich of Sedro-Woolley, who attended the same knitting group as Carri Williams starting in about 2006, recounted Carri “venting” to the group about problems with Hana.
“When we suggested she return her to the adoption agency, she said, ‘That’s not an option. I wouldn’t wish her on anybody,’” Starkovich testified.
Starkovich never saw Hana at the knitting group. She said the members suggested Carri bring Hana, but Carri said she didn’t want to “expose her to us.”
The day ended with testimony from Detective Dan Luvera of the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. Luvera went to the Williams home, took photos and collected evidence after Hana was taken to the hospital the night she died.
Most of Luvera’s time on the stand Friday afternoon was spent unsealing evidence packages containing pieces of Hana’s clothing that were left in the patio area of the home when she died. Luvera held each one up for the jury: A blue T-shirt. Gray sweatpants. Underwear. Two white socks, stained with mud. A left shoe. A right shoe. All wet when detectives found them.
Packaged together were a set of dry clothes that had gone untouched on the patio, reportedly left there by Carri Williams for Hana to change into.
The next day, Luvera watched the autopsy of Hana’s body, which he described on the stand as “very thin,” with noticeable injuries.
Luvera later conducted follow-up interviews with the family, along with another detective, a representative of Child Protective Services and an interpreter for the deaf adopted son. When they interviewed each remaining Williams child individually, Larry and Carri sat in, and the children often looked at their parents before answering a question, Luvera said.
Some of the biological Williams children could be called to testify Monday morning, Skagit County Prosecutor Rich Weyrich said Friday. Two of the sons have told the court through their attorneys they intend to assert their Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions on the stand.