CAMERON - "She's not breathing."
Clemon Small testified Friday morning that his wife only said those words to him in a phone call about 7 p.m. July 29, 2013. He rushed home to find 2-year-old Alexandria Hill lying on the floor of his family's Rockdale home. She was unconscious and not responding to pleas from his wife, Small said.
Small was one of six witnesses called Friday by defense attorney Norman Lanford in the capital murder trial of foster mother Sherill Small in the 20th District Court. Friday's testimony revealed a little more detail about the few minutes after Alexandria was fatally injured.
It also brought problems to the defense when the expertise of its key medical witness was called into question by the prosecution. Judge John Youngblood ruled to restrict some of Dr. Steven Yount's testimony to only his personal experience as a general practitioner.
The defense began its case Friday morning with two jailers, who provided brief testimony about the booking and correspondence monitoring practices at the Milam County Jail.
A friend of the family testified that he'd always seen Sherill Small be jovial with his children and the foster children when they gathered for parties or karaoke events.
Sherill Small's 17-year-old granddaughter Alicia Lotfi told jurors that she had spent most of her life in her grandmother's care and she was never abused. She also said she never saw her grandmother be abusive toward the foster children under her care, outside of a quick smack on the hand.
Alicia said her grandmother would often play with Alexandria on the floor and the 8-month-old infant in her foster care. In the nearly eight months Alexandria was staying with the Smalls, Alicia said, she would see the young girl pull her hair out and fall to the ground throwing tantrums.
Prosecutors focused on Alicia's interview with a CPS investigator after Alexandria died July 31, 2013. When questioned about who was staying in the house, she said it was just the foster kids and her grandparents. However, a summary of her interview showed that Alicia admitted to the CPS investigator that her mother's boyfriend, a man by the nickname of "Trigger," would spend the night sometimes. She confirmed that Clemon and Sherill Small said he was "staying there on the down-low."
The majority of Friday's testimony was spent questioning Clemon Small and Yount.
Clemon Small described his wife's actions the night Alexandria was injured as hysterical. When he arrived home July 29, the former certified nursing assistant said he started chest compressions on the toddler. About five minutes later, volunteer firefighters arrived and took Alexandria to the hospital.
It wasn't until the grand jury was convened that Clemon learned he was under investigation by officials. Rather than testify, his court-appointed legal counsel suggested he plead the fifth.
On Friday, though, he told Judge Youngblood that he was testifying in the trial without consulting his attorney.
For more than an hour, he described his background, how he and his wife became foster parents and the events leading up to Alexandria's death.
Clemon gave conflicting descriptions of his wife's account of the events on July 29, first saying she was tossing the child in the air, then playing ring-around-the-rosie, then back to tossing her up in the air.
"She told me she was playing with Alex, tossing her over her head and dropped her," Clemon told District Attorney Bill Torrey.
The afternoon testimony was completely focused around Yount's physical examination of Sherill Small, especially results of two MRIs showing she showed signs of white matter lesions that can cause loss in motor function and cognitive processes. The scans also showed atrophy in her brain and test results showed her brain function was one point away from being classified as dementia.
Lanford questioned Yount about the surgeries performed on Sherill Small's wrist tendons, which had become rigid. According to Yount, Small's medical records revealed that her surgery was a success, but a staph infection set back her recovery. He noted that by the time he examined her in February of this year, Small had lost significant grip-strength in her left hand and was experiencing weakness in the arm.
Yount agreed that this could account for Small's statement to police that she lost her grip while playing with Alexandria.
Lanford began to review Alex's autopsy records and medical studies on retinal hemorrhaging, but was deterred when Torrey called into question the validity of Yount's experience as a general practitioner and former board member for the Children's Advocacy Center in Bastrop. The judge ruled in favor of prosecution. Lanford later stated for the record his objection on the grounds of his client's Fifth Amendment rights.
Testimony was wrapped early Friday afternoon and will pick up Monday morning.