Day two of accused killer Akeem Whitfield’s trial produces differing arguments as to the cause of 10-month-old Iyonna Brown’s death.
After hearing the district attorney paint a grim picture of Iyonna Brown’s short, poverty-filled life, a jury this morning saw graphic photo after graphic photo of the 10-month-old after she died.
Some images showed the baby’s cherub face — chubby cheeks, thick, dark hair, eyes closed as though she were asleep. Her right eye appeared swollen and bruised. Another bruise had settled in above her left eye, and her chin was scraped and bruised.
Some photos showed a single leg, badly burned, the skin sloughed off. One showed her blistered and reddened genital area. Another, showed one of her eyes held open with a medical device, a spot of blood in the white of her eye.
It was a jarring start to the trial of the baby’s alleged killer, Akeem Whitfield, 24, who is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Authorities say Iyonna was burned and beaten while under his supervision at the Woodridge Motel on Lakeshore Drive in Canandaigua on May 30. Iyonna’s mother, Heather Brown, is charged with manslaughter because she allegedly did not seek medical attention for her daughter until it was too late; her trial starts March 24.
The jury of 12 was picked Monday. The trial began this morning with opening arguments from District Attorney R. Michael Tantillo and Whitfield’s attorney, Robert Tucker.
Tucker said the case was “a terrible, terrible accident followed by an equally terrible rush to judgment.” He said Whitfield put Iyonna on the sole bed in Room 27 at the residential motel – where Whitfield was living with Brown, Iyonna and Brown’s other daughter, a 4-year-old — to change her diaper when he turned for a moment and heard a “thump.” He looked back only to see she had fallen onto the floor and had somehow gotten entangled in an electric frying pan filled with hot oil, water and sausages he was cooking, Tucker said.
Whitfield then put Iyonna under cold water and “administered” to her wounds, but did not seek medical help, Tucker said. “These are poor people, they do not have health insurance,” he said.
What’s more — Tucker asserted in his opening argument and in cross-examining the first witnesses – that Iyonna might have had a pre-existing head injury that turned fatal when she fell off the bed.
Tantillo painted a very different picture of what happened that day. He pointed out to jurors that Whitfield had lied to investigators several times after Iyonna died, at first saying he wasn’t caring for her in the motel room at all that day, later changing his story to say he was watching her while Brown was in Geneva. He said Iyonna suffered three separate skull fractures that would have required separate “violent, forcible blows” to the head that could not have come from falling off a bed onto the carpeted motel room floor. Furthermore, he said, the burn patterns on her body were not consistent with spattering from hot liquid, but rather, appeared to be from an immersion, or dunking.
“I’m not going to be able to paint for you folks a precise picture of every single act included on Iyonna,” Tantillo told jurors, noting that Whitfield was the only adult present when the baby was injured and that Brown won’t take the stand since she is charged separately. “There won’t be any video recordings or pictures taken by camera of what happened that day.
“I will be able to prove to you that Iyonna Brown was severely battered on May 30, 2007,” he added.
Tantillo speculated that Iyonna had been fussy, or crying, as babies her age often are, but ultimately, offered no motive, saying, “Why the defendant did what he did, I don’t know. I don’t think any of us will understand that.”
Dr. Robert Horowitz, who oversaw Iyonna’s care when she was rushed into the emergency room at Thompson Hospital just before midnight, was the first witness the DA called to the stand Monday. He said the baby “appeared dead” on arrival, with no pulse and no breathing. After several minutes of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, medications and other emergency measures, she was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m. May 31.
Before telling Brown that Iyonna had died, Horowitz said he did a more thorough examination of her body, not only looking at the bruises and burns, but also feeling a “mass of fluid-like jelly” on the back of her head. The mass, he said, was indicative of blood under the skin from a head injury.
Tantillo submitted the photos as evidence while Horowitz was on the stand. Tucker did not want jurors to see them, arguing to Ontario County Court Judge Craig Doran that they were inflammatory and that sufficient evidence of the baby’s injuries was offered in the form of Horowitz’s verbal testimony. Tantillo argued that “it is imperative for the jury to see” the images, which he said, “will go along way toward showing the intentional nature” of the alleged crime.
After excusing himself to his chambers for several minutes to review the photos, Doran returned and ruled that they could be presented. Before they were put on a large overhead television screen and on smaller screens in the jury box, Doran cautioned the jury, “You may find these photographs grim and unpleasant,” and he told them not to dwell on them, but rather, view them “quickly, calmly and unemotionally.”
In addition to Horowitz, Tantillo also called to the stand the two Ontario County Advanced Life Support paramedics who took Iyonna from the Woodridge Motel to Thompson, the 911 operator who took the call from Brown just before midnight, and Ontario County sheriff’s deputies and investigators.
The trial is expected to last about a week.
If convicted, Whitfield faces a maximum of 25 years to life in state prison for the more serious murder charge. He and Brown are being held in the Ontario County Jail.
Jessica Pierce can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.