BEDFORD — A doctor Tuesday likened the fatal injury an eight-month-old girl suffered in late 2008 to the kind of trauma she would expect to see in a child who had been ejected from a car in a high-speed collision.
But Marissa Burnette wasn’t in a car crash. Prosecutors accuse the child’s mother, Cecelia Leigh Burnette, of the second-degree murder of her baby. Burnette’s defense lawyers blame her then-boyfriend for the child’s death.
Although doctors who testified Tuesday classified the girl’s cause of death as “abusive head trauma,” both Dr. Donald Kees, a pediatrician at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital who treated the girl, and Dr. Robin Foster, a Richmond-area expert in pediatric emergency medicine, used shaking motions to describe how the baby may have been injured.
Kees testified the baby suffered brain bleeding and had bleeding in the back of her eyes — textbook signs the child’s brain had been shaken inside her skull to the point of fatal brain damage, he said.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Rebecca Wetzel told jurors Burnette returned home and dropped her daughter off with Cheek, asking him to bathe the baby, who had vomited while at the doctor’s office, while she went to fill a prescription for antibiotics for the child’s ear infection.
Wetzel said Cheek noticed the baby girl seemed to be unaware of her surroundings while in the bath and had a seizure. She said Cheek called Burnette, who blew him off.
“She tells him that he’s overreacting, that it’s no big deal,” the prosecutor said.
After returning home and going about her business, Burnette left the child in Cheek’s care again to pick up her car from her grandmother’s home on Peaks Street where, she told investigators, she had been living at the time. At this time, Wetzel said, Cheek noticed again that the child’s eyes rolled back in her head, she had a seizure and stopped breathing.
He tried to reach Burnette several times, tried calling her grandmother and eventually reached his mother by phone, who told him to hang up and to call 911.
The baby was taken to Bedford Memorial Hospital where she was stabilized before being taken by ambulance to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, witnesses testified.
“By the time she got to me, she had no brain activity at that point,” Kees testified.
Wetzel, in her opening argument, noted that Burnette lied about living with Cheek to medical personnel and law enforcement. She said Burnette lied about who was caring for the child that day, saying that her grandmother and a nurse friend had been looking after her baby. Burnette didn’t tell anyone the child had been having seizures until she testified before a grand jury in January 2009. She didn’t mention head trauma the child may have suffered until speaking to a Bedford police investigator in October 2009, Wetzel said, when she mentioned the baby hit her head accidentally a few times the day she went to the hospital.
Kees and Foster testified the injuries were not accidentally inflicted and that the girl showed no signs of external injury that would have indicated she hit her head.
Burnette’s defense lawyer, however, maintained that Burnette lied only to cover up an “illicit” relationship she had with Cheek, not about her daughter’s injuries.
David Oblon argued that Burnette was in a legal custody fight with the child’s biological father and didn’t want him to know she and their daughter were living with Cheek — who has felony convictions for obtaining money by false pretenses and misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession.
Oblon noted that, according to Wetzel, none of the seizures the baby suffered that day were in Burnette’s presence, “because he’s the one shaking the baby and causing injury.” He told prospective jurors before the trial started that he believes the evidence will show it is just as likely Burnette killed her daughter as it is that Cheek is responsible, making it impossible for prosecutors to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
n Jurors heard Cheek’s call to 911. During the call, jurors could hear Cheek explaining to dispatcher Becky Carter how the baby started shaking and stopped breathing. They could hear Carter fighting for Cheek’s attention as he spoke to someone else in the background while she tried to give infant CPR directions. A woman could be heard shrieking in the background of the call.
n The baby’s biological father, Adam Davis, offered testimony about his fight for custody, concerns about her wellbeing and his child’s last moments at the hospital:
“When I walked through the doors, my daughter was laying on the table,” he said. “She was hooked up to a bunch of machines and she looked a different color.”
n Witnesses, including Davis, testified Burnette didn’t stay in the room with her child while at the hospital and that she left Roanoke Memorial before doctors removed the child’s life support.
Neither of the original lead attorneys for the prosecution or defense are trying the case. Bedford Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz declared a conflict of interest last year, leaving the case to be prosecuted by Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Doucette, Wetzel, and Senior Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Janell Johnson. Defense attorney Morgan Griffith, who was elected as the Republican congressman from Virginia’s 9th District last year, has been replaced by attorneys from his former firm — Oblon, James Whitus and Griffith’s wife, Hilary.
The trial is expected to resume at 9 a.m. Burnette is free on bond pending the outcome of the trial. The trial is expected to last another day or two, according to Judge James Updike.