As the jury deliberated behind closed doors on Thursday and Friday, the mother of the defendant accused of killing his girlfriend’s baby never strayed more than 20 minutes away from the downtown courthouse on Fourth Street.
Cell phone in hand, Laura McNish anxiously awaits the same phone call that her 24-year-old son, attorneys and the media are expecting: the one from the court clerk’s office advising the jury has reached a verdict, and court will be reconvening to announce it.
“It’s really rough,” McNish said in a recent interview. “I was crushed when I saw the jury walk by at 4:30 on Friday.”
Throughout David J. Paul’s court appearances over the past near three years during pretrial litigation, and throughout his four-week long trial which began in Juneau Superior Court late last month, no one has appeared in court on Paul’s behalf to lend him moral support. That is, until McNish and her son Jason Paul, Paul’s 19-year-old younger brother, sat down in the first row of the courtroom’s public gallery on Wednesday.
The 40-year-old co-owner of an auto repair shop in Thorne Bay and mother of five says she strongly believes in her son’s innocence. The only reason the family hasn’t been able to attend ongoing legal proceedings is because it was too expensive to travel to Juneau from Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska where they live. She and Jason were able to make the trip this time because air miles were given to them, and they are staying at a local campground site instead of a hotel.
“We really can’t afford to be here, but we needed to,” she said.
Paul is accused of causing the August 2010 death of 4-month-old Rian Jambi Orr, whom state prosecutors say was abused more than once given older injuries found on her body. She was found seizing at home the morning of Aug. 9 and was flown to a Seattle hospital where she died a week later from her head injuries.
Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp argued in closing arguments on Thursday that Paul abused Orr that morning, possibly by shaking, then allowed her to languish for several hours until the mother noticed the seizures.
Paul’s defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland, meanwhile, says Orr had a preexisting brain injury that only became apparent that morning with the onset of seizing. Shaken Baby Syndrome, they argued, is not a valid scientific theory, and a bone disorder explains the child’s prior injuries.
McNish says she doesn’t believe her son could have abused the child he raised as his own. (Paul had rekindled his relationship with the baby’s mother as she was three months pregnant with someone else’s child. He is not Orr’s biological father, but is listed as the father on the birth certificate and was the baby’s primary caretaker alongside the mother.)
“David would never hurt a child on purpose,” McNish said, pointing to how good he is with his young cousins.
She recalled the night of Aug. 9, when Paul called her from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and told her the baby was hurt and had been medevaced from Bartlett Regional Hospital. Police by that time had already pinpointed Paul as the primary suspect and had informed him that if the baby lived, he would be charged with assault, and if the baby died, he would be charged with murder.
“He was in panic, and he didn’t know what to do,” McNish said, adding that doctors kept him out of the loop with Orr’s medical condition and that he was prohibited from seeing her in her hospital bed. “... He didn’t know what was going on, and he was extremely confused.”
She also recalled the night of Aug. 15, when the baby — whom McNish had never met since the baby was born and raised in Juneau — died after being taken off life support. McNish couldn’t fly to Seattle and was in Thorne Bay when he called to tell her the news.
“Nobody actually spoke,” she said. “It was just both of us crying together.”
When people see Paul, they see someone on trial for second-degree murder and manslaughter for possibly killing an infant. McNish says she sees her son, who is athletic, loves running marathons and once took home a lightweight championship belt for boxing when he was 16. He was proud of Rian and relished being a father, she said.
“He was so proud of that baby girl,” McNish said during an interview around a picnic table at their campsite. “I don’t know what all ever made it into evidence, but he used to text me pictures all the time.”
She noted that Rian was actually supposed to be named “Rain” but there was a mistake on the birth certificate — someone had switched the ‘a’ and the ‘i’. The parents still called her “Baby Rainy,” but eventually switched to “Rian” (pronounced ‘Ryan’) to be consistent with the certificate.
“I believe my son is innocent,” McNish said. “He has a heart of gold, he loves children,... It’s just not in his personality.”
“Yeah, that’s the one thing I never understood,” Jason noted.
McNish said, “That baffled us all, trying to process what we were being told from the beginning, trying to process that, and we’re all thinking, ‘That’s not David, that’s not David, that’s not David’. ... I believe in the defense’s theory that the baby had rickets and the baby had problems. I believe that that theory explains the unexplainable that’s been in our heads since the day this happened. Because nothing — nothing — could explain to me how and why and what — No, there’s no way. David had brushes with the law, but it was theft. He doesn’t have assault charges, he doesn’t have domestic violence charges, he doesn’t — he’s not that person.”
Paul first noticed his family was in the courtroom as he was being escorted by a court security officer out the door during a bathroom break. He paused mid-step, and they tried to approach him for a hug. The officer didn’t allow contact due to court rules and explained that to the family. Still, McNish couldn’t help by cry, and Paul appeared rattled as well.
Back at the defendant’s table, Paul turned around to try to ask them how long they would be in town. That earned him a verbal reprimand from the officer, again due to court rules.
McNish and Jason got the chance to speak to him on Wednesday night at the jail during a secure visit between a glass partition. During an interview, McNish teared up, saying she still hasn’t been able to hug him.
Because of money and timing, Paul’s mother and brother could only stay in Juneau from Tuesday night to Saturday morning. They were hopeful a verdict would be reached by then, which it wasn’t.
“Money, timing, time off work, it all came down to having very little time to have to spend here, and I wanted to be here for the verdict, that was — I really wanted to be here for that,” she said. “I want to be able to put my arms around him.”
McNish’s mother will be in the courtroom to support Paul on Monday, she said, as a sort of changing of the guard. The mother and son said they would “go home and hope for the best.”
“Very hopeful, very, very hopeful,” for a not guilty verdict, McNish said. “I don’t see how it could be any other way, but I know him, that’s what makes it hard for me. If it’s not ...”
The jury — six men and six women — broke to deliberate at about 3:40 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. They met again Friday, and will resume deliberating on Monday morning.
If convicted, Paul could be facing life in prison for second-degree murder and 20 years for manslaughter.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.