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Health, credibility of mother at forefront of murder trial

Defense calls witnesses to testify on behalf of father accused of killing 4-month-old infant

Posted: June 9, 2013 - 11:22pm
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Rebecca Van der Water, a midwife at Juneau Family Health and Birth Center, testifies in the David J. Paul trial in Juneau Superior Court on Friday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Rebecca Van der Water, a midwife at Juneau Family Health and Birth Center, testifies in the David J. Paul trial in Juneau Superior Court on Friday.

Juneau Family Health and Birth Center staff members said Friday the teenage mother of a baby who died in 2010 had poor nutrition, low Vitamin D levels and smoked during pregnancy, providing testimony for the defense intended to create doubt in the jury’s mind that the infant died from a preexisting medical condition rather than child abuse.

Midwife Rebecca Van De Water and doula Shayna Rohwer both said under oath that the mother ignored their nutritional advice and subsisted on ice cream, candy and juice during her pregnancy. She had trouble getting her prenatal vitamins down and putting on weight, and she reportedly smoked four cigarettes a day and had “no interest” in changing her lifestyle, they said from the witness stand.

Van De Water surmised that expecting mother Jaki Orr, now in her 20s, wanted to do well, but circumstances likely prevented her from doing so. Jaki was highly intelligent, but had a rough life, she said.

“She really articulated that she understood the importance of what we were telling her to do,” the midwife said, “but I also think that as much as she understood and believed, the bigger picture is that it was very hard for her to marshal what it took to do those things, as a teen who was in and out of school, in and out of homes, had access to very little food, I would imagine, and security. She was homeless at times. So my feeling is that she understood and to the best of a teenager’s ability to believe that the things that you do have an impact (on your child), she got it, she just couldn’t always back on it.”

During her third trimester, Jaki was “risked out” of the Birth Center, which allows mothers to have all natural births outside of a hospital setting, and was referred to a nearby family clinic instead. Van De Water said that decision was made because Jaki had a short cervix (an indicator of pre-term delivery), the baby was “falling off the growth curve” in utero (meaning the child was at risk for intrauterine growth restriction), and because she did not comply with their contract stipulating that she must seek psychiatric care if she wants to remain at the center. Van De Water said she was concerned Jaki Orr had “multiple psychiatric disorders” that were undiagnosed, while Rohwer said she was concerned with Jaki’s “mental stability” and ability to care for herself.

If it sounds like Jaki is on trial, that’s because the defense has turned the tables after the state rested its case on Wednesday. State prosecutors say 4-month-old Rian Jambi Orr died at the hands of Jaki’s boyfriend, 24-year-old David J. Paul, who is standing trial in Juneau Superior Court for second-degree murder and manslaughter. Prosecutors say the baby was healthy until the morning of Aug. 9, 2010, when she was found seizing. She was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and died a week later after being taken off life support on Aug. 15, 2010.

Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp says Paul admitted to shaking the baby once, or giving her “one forceful shove back” that morning, but that there’s probably more to the story that he’s not saying given his “ever-evolving” incriminating statements to police, she says. She says the older rib and leg fractures and bruises found on the child’s chest at the hospital were evidence of prior child abuse.

The defense, however, posits Orr had a chronic brain injury that went unnoticed until that morning, as well as rickets, a bone disorder caused by vitamin deficiencies resulting in fragile bones that fracture easily. Their expert medical witnesses testified to that on Wednesday and Thursday.

On Friday, Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland called Jaki’s parenting skills into question, for several reasons. One was to combat statements Jaki made from the witness stand the first week of trial, wherein she testified Paul told the baby to “shut the **** up” and threw or tossed a blanket over her to muffle her cries. Another was to undermine the police investigation, which Hedland says was biased since police labeled Paul as the primary suspect within the first 20 minutes of investigating the case, as police testimony confirmed. Both parents were the baby’s primary caregivers, had access to the baby before she showed symptoms of illness and both denied knowledge of what caused the baby’s injuries during the initial interviews with police, yet Jaki was not considered a suspect after the first police interview in the emergency room on Aug. 9. Hedland also argued Jaki’s parenting skills are relevant to the trial because the jurors have to decide if she “could have done it,” given the construct of the state’s theory that if Paul didn’t do it, Jaki did.

Hedland brought in character witnesses to testify about the respective parents’ parenting abilities. A teacher of a child development class raved about how tender Paul was with a model baby used in the class, which he received an A- in. A former roommate of his testified she trusted Paul with her young children more than she trusted her own boyfriend at the time.

In contrast, Jaki’s doula who was present during the baby’s birth testified that Jaki made statements during labor, such as, “This isn’t what I wanted.”

“She repeatedly said, ‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ ‘This isn’t good,’ ‘This isn’t right,’ and I knew (it was) about her baby, presumably not about the birth itself, which is sad,” Rohwer said.

Rohwer also testified that Jaki called her from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and expressed concern that she would lose her Section-8 housing at Coho Apartments if her baby died. Rohwer described that concern as a “strange response.”

Hedland tried to introduce photographs of Jaki’s messy Coho apartment, which she had abandoned in 2012 (several months after Paul had been arrested, charged with a crime and was incarcerated) to move to Missouri where she still presently lives. But the judge upheld an objection from the state and found the pictures inadmissible.

During arguments held outside the presence of the jury, Hedland said the photos depict a trashed apartment with a knife and bleach on the floor and opened food everywhere while Jaki was living there with an infant (it was not said whose child). She hadn’t paid her electric bill — in February in the wintertime with a child in the house, he emphasized. He said those pictures go to show Jaki’s character, as far as bad parenting, her motive and state of mind.

Judge Philip Pallenberg said he would not allow the photos, saying one cannot judge one’s parenting abilities from a messy household, and that one can certainly not say that parents with a messy home are more inclined to abuse their children. He would allow the property manager of the apartment to testify about the state of the apartment, though, the judge ruled.

Hedland then requested to introduce just one of the photographs — a picture of the baby’s things (a bouncy chair, a baby bath) thrown out behind someone’s garbage in the apartment complex. It would tend to show that Jaki doesn’t care about Rian’s things, Hedland said.

The state objected saying that it’s not confirmed those things were Rian’s and that Jaki has never been confronted with the photograph in question.

A heated exchange followed when the judge noted, “If you think about the reasons why the mom of a dead child might not haul her dead child’s belongings with her everywhere she goes —”

“Yeah, but why is it seen through the lens of ‘the mom of a dead child’ and ‘boy, we feel sorry for her,’ and not when it’s Mr. Paul?” Hedland interjected. “Why do we do that? Why do we all go there? Can you think of a reason if she’s a cold-hearted person and inflicted injury to Mr. Paul or to Rian Orr? It all depends what we bring there in the first instance. It tends to show that she left behind Rian’s stuff like so much garbage. That has independent relevance. That’s what I think.”

“It’s hard for me to respond to that argument because I find it so offensive to suggest that she ought to bring all of Rian’s things with her wherever she goes,” Pallenberg said. “I wonder how swayed the jury would be by that argument. That’s for you to judge, not me.”

“It’s offensive to — are you defending Ms. Orr now?“ Hedland asked.

The judge responded, “Just that there are a host of inferences one could draw from her not carrying her dead child’s bouncy chair with her to another state. Is it because she finds it heart-breaking to have it around? Is it because she doesn’t need it anymore because she doesn’t have a little girl anymore? Or is it because she doesn’t care about her child ... It’s any number of inferences from that. Is it more likely that she doesn’t care about Rian and that’s why she left the bouncy chair behind? You make that argument at your own peril.”

“I make all my arguments at my own peril, and I don’t ask the court to make them for me,” Hedland replied. “I ask the court to let me put on my case. It says a lot when the court sits there and feels like it needs to defend Jaki Orr. It says a lot to me, given the evidence we’re presenting at trial here. It says a lot. We think it’s offensive that Mr. Paul was charged with murder and told he killed his baby — said in public that he killed his baby —”

The judge cut the conversation after that, and Hedland withdrew his request to admit the photograph as an exhibit, saying it didn’t make sense in a vacuum without the other photographs.

The defense also recalled the lead detective in the case back to the witness stand, Juneau Police Department Detective Kim Horn. The jury has already heard Horn’s interviews with Paul the day the baby was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital on Aug. 9, as well as an interview that took place two days later at Harborview. This time, the defense played an interview that took place between Horn and Jaki, Paul, Paul’s estranged father and his girlfriend at Harborview on Aug. 12, three days before the baby would die. Again, the parents deny any wrongdoing.

Horn is heard telling Jaki that she is under investigation by the Office of Children’s Services, and Horn tells Paul that he is going to be charged with assault if Rian lives, and murder if Rian dies. Horn tells Jaki she will make sure she has access to visit Rian at her bedside while in the hospital while Paul will not have that access.

Horn will resume the stand for direct and cross examination as testimony resumes next week, the fourth week of trial.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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