A Columbia County jury will continue deliberating Saturday charges against a Martinez woman charged in the 2009 death of a toddler she was baby-sitting.
The trial of Lawanda Concettes Tripp, 41 started Monday. Tripp is charged with murder in the death of 22-month-old Teaira Michele Hall, who was in Tripp's care when she died Nov. 15, 2009, from head injuries.
Tripp testified on Friday, the last day of testimony.
"I never did anything to hurt Teaira," Tripp said. "I loved that little girl as if she was my own."
Tripp's attorney, Victor Hawk, referred to Tripp as the "innocent baby-sitter." He said the toddler was sick and had pre-existing head injuries when she was left in Tripp's care.
Teaira banged her head during a tantrum, causing a seizure and ultimately, her death.
"You don't expect something like this to happen to the child," Hawk said in his closing arguments. "The consequences to be so great, to be so fatal."
Assistant District Attorney John Markwalter said Teaira might have had previous injuries, but the fatal ones happened while in Tripp's care and were likely inflicted by Tripp.
"We've witnessed the death of innocence in Columbia County with the death of this little girl," Markwalter said.
The last day of testimony began with the testimony Army Sgt. Samantha McCampbell, who could not attend the trial because she's in military training in New York and testified via Skype.
The former supervisor of Tripp and Teaira's mother, Antionette, said she noticed the toddler had unusual head-bobbing. She once had to order Hall to take the child to the doctor.
The most significant witness before the lunch break was Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist. Plunkett agreed with the autopsy report that Teaira died from head injuries.
But Plunkett said evidence suggests that the large bruises found inside her scalp happened the day she died.
"Ultimately, the closed head injury and impact is the cause of Teaira's death," Plunkett said. "(The large bruises) look like something that occurred several days or a week (prior)."
He did find evidence that there could have been a fresh injury on top of an older one indicating that Teaira sustained another head injury sending her into a seizure and stopping heart respiratory and cardiac function.
"I know a head injury caused Teraira's death, but I don't know if she did the injury herself," Plunkett said, "or if Ms. Tripp caused the injury."
After deliberating for about four hours Friday evening, the jurors opted to return at 10 a.m. Saturday.
The first witness called Thursday morning - and the final prosecution witness - was Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Dr. Keith Lehman, who conducted the autopsy on Teaira.
Lehman described bruises and injuries to the toddler as members of the jury viewed graphic photos from the autopsy. While Tripp quietly wept, Lehman told the jury that the bruises on Teaira's brain were "fresh" and "recent," countering defense claims that the toddler had a habit of banging her head during tantrums.
"It's not reasonable to think a child banging his or her head could have caused this type of injuries," Lehman said, describing the bruising on Teaira's scalp and bleeding on and around her brain and in her eyes.
Members of the jury appeared uncomfortable at viewing the graphic photos on a monitor, but paid rapt attention as Lehman described his findings.
Lehman concluded his prosecution testimony in response to a question from Assistant District Attorney Johnny Markwalter, stating that the injuries that killed Teaira weren't inflicted by her own actions, but were homicide caused by someone else.
During cross-examination, Hawk accused Lehman of ignoring science in order to help the prosecution, contending that the injuries could have been inflicted before Tripp began babysitting the toddler.
"Severe head injuries were inflicted shortly before EMTs were called," Lehman said. With this type of injury, you would expect the child to be symptomatic immediately."
Tripp, a former civilian employee at Fort Gordon, and Teaira's mother, Antoinette Hall, worked together.
Two former coworkers of the women testified Thursday afternoon that they noticed the toddler as shy, lethargic and not on par developmentally with other children her age. Patrick Smith said he noticed Teaira bobbing her head.
Tripp often watched Teaira and former co-worker Steve White said, "She had a genuine care for that child."
The trial is slated to resume at 9 a.m. with a witness testifying via Skype from New York, where she's involved in military training.
Hawk said he's planned also for a medical expert to testify Friday morning before Tripp takes the stand.
Officials postponed the conclusion of the trial of Lawanda Concettes Tripp, 41, which started started Monday and witnesses testified through Tuesday afternoon. A key prosecution witness, who was not named, isn’t available until Thursday morning, Assistant District Attorney John Markwalter said.
Tripp is charged with murder in the death of 22-month-old Teaira Michele Hall, who was in Tripp’s care.
Authorities were called to Tripp’s Avery Landing home on Nov. 15, 2009, in response to a report that the child wasn’t breathing.
The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday, Superior Court Judge Michael N. Annis said.
A video-taped interview with Tripp, conducted by Columbia County sheriff’s Investigator James Edmunds, was played for the jury Tuesday.
In the interview, done only hours after Teaira died, Tripp explained how the toddler was sick for two days before the incident, not eating much and vomiting what little she did.
“She’s gone and it hurts and for some reason I can’t cry,” Tripp said in the interview. “I’m still in shock.”
Emergency responders, including a Columbia County sheriff’s deputy, a firefighter and an EMT testified that they were initially told Teaira possibly choked on M&Ms.
Dr. David Coffin said he initially treated Teaira, who was brought into the emergency room without a pulse and not breathing, as a choking victim. He was then told she might have sustained head trauma from banging her head in a tantrum.
Teaira died of multi-traumatic head injuries, according to Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins. She suffered injury and swelling to her brain and optical structures, Markwalter said.
Sheriff’s Sgt. James Moss, the criminal investigator assigned to the case, interviewed Tripp, who said Teaira was sick earlier in the day. She told Moss that Teaira wanted to be held and started crying. Tripp told the toddler she’d take her to McDonald’s and went to the bedroom to change clothes.
Tripp said she saw Teaira “pitch a fit,” bang her head on the floor, and she told her to stop. Tripp told Edmunds about Teaira’s fit and head-banging in the interview.
Attorneys selected a jury and made opening statements Monday, the first day of the trial.
Authorities were called to Tripp’s Avery Landing home on Nov. 15, 2009, in response to a report that the child wasn’t breathing. At the time of the call, Teaira was in Tripp’s care, said Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris.
“It was the death of innocence in many ways,” Assistant District Attorney John Markwalter said of Teaira’s death.
Teaira died from multi-traumatic head injuries, according to Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins. She suffered injury and swelling to her brain and optical structures, Markwalter said.
Tripp’s attorney, Victor Hawk, told the jury that Teaira had “a history of temper tantrums, banging her head on objects.” Her mother, Antoinette Hall testified that Teaira would sometimes bang her head on the floor, walls or furniture when she threw a fit.
Tripp, formerly a civilian employee on Fort Gordon, and Hall worked together and Tripp baby-sat Teaira several times before.
Hawk said Teaira’s fatal symptoms were the result of a pre-existing injury, sustained before the toddler was left with Tripp two days before. A head-banging tantrum at Tripp’s home aggravated the injury and sent Teaira into a seizure.
“Nothing Lawanda Tripp did to that baby caused her death at all,” Hawk said.
Tripp initially told deputies that the child was acting “strange” and was “throwing a fit,” according to a sheriff’s office incident report.
Markwalter said Tripp provided emergency personnel and her neighbors, who called 911 and helped administer CPR to the toddler, an “ever-evolving pattern of statements” ranging from no explanation, to Teaira choked on M&Ms to she threw a tantrum that caused her injuries.
“Lawanda doesn’t know what it is,” Hawk said. “She just knows she’s got a baby not breathing, fists clenched, staring.”
Tripp rode in the ambulance with Teaira to Doctors Hospital. The toddler did not survive transfer to the Medical College of Georgia Hospital.
Tripp is being held in the Columbia County Detention Center without bond, according to jail records.
Two teachers at Teaira’s daycare center and Tripp’s neighbors also testified on the first day of the trial.
“I thought she was just being a brat,” Tripp said of Teaira’s tantrum.
But in the interview, she seemed remorseful she didn’t pick the child up.
“She said, ‘I feel so responsible,’” Moss testified. “’I should have picked the child up. It’s all my fault.’”
Only after a doctor found a knot on the back of Teaira’s head did Tripp demonstrate for Moss how she said Teaira sat by the door, hit her head on the floor between her legs, then slammed her head backward into the door.
Tripp, formerly a civilian employee at Fort Gordon, and Teaira’s mother, Antionette Hall, worked together, and Tripp had baby-sat Teaira several times.
Tripp’s attorney, Victor Hawk, said Teaira’s fatal symptoms were the result of a pre-existing injury, sustained before the toddler was left with Tripp two days before. A head-banging tantrum at Tripp’s home aggravated the injury and sent Teaira into a seizure.
“Nothing Lawanda Tripp did to that baby caused her death at all,” Hawk said.
Hall testified Monday that her daughter sometimes banged her head on the floor, wall or objects when she threw a temper tantrum. She brought her cousin, Martina Cuffie, to the hospital with her.
Cuffie testified that Tripp told her several versions of what happened while in the waiting room. Cuffie said Tripp told her Teaira threw a tantrum, hit her head and stopped breathing. She then said she heard a shriek and found Teaira lifeless. Then Tripp mentioned she might have choked on M&Ms.
Michelle Johnson, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic computer analyst, testified Tuesday that she’d examined Tripp’s computer. Just after midnight, hours after Teaira died and before her interview with Edmunds, Tripp performed several Google searches.
She looked for terms like “children that throw temper tantrums resulting in dangerous conditions,” “children on breathing machines,” and “God, please help TT. She’s not breathing on her own and she’s just a baby.”