The first murder trial since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is underway in Kitsap County Superior Court, with jurors hearing opening statements Monday in the case of a man accused of beating to death his 2-month-old son.
However, social-distancing measures have returned as infection numbers began to ratchet up again, raising questions of whether courtrooms will remain open for jury trials if another surge strikes. The presiding judge of the Superior Court said judges want to proceed with jury trials but are monitoring statistics and consulting with the Kitsap Public Health District.
The case of Damien Charles McCarter, 34, accused in December 2019 of second-degree murder for the death of his infant son, Aaron McCarter, is the oldest of 11 murder or homicide by abuse cases that have been pending in Kitsap County since the onset of the pandemic. Altogether, 14 people have been arraigned in those 11 cases and are awaiting trial.
In the McCarter case, among the medical experts on the defense's witness list is a doctor who worked at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma who has come under intense scrutiny for her role assisting police and child welfare workers find abuse.
However, it is uncertain, if not unlikely, that Dr. Elizabeth Woods will actually appear in court and testify. Prosecutors said Woods had only peripheral contact with the McCarter case and has no relevant testimony to offer jurors.
Case started in December 2019
Prosecutors and Kitsap County sheriff's detectives allege McCarter, of Keyport, assaulted the infant, breaking bones, fracturing his skull and inflicting a catastrophic brain injury that led to his death on Dec. 4, 2019. Aaron was first brought to Harrison Medical Center, now St. Michael Medical Center, and was then flown to Mary Bridge.
"He was the only one with the child at this time," Deputy Prosecutor Joseph Lombardi told jurors during opening statements Monday. "He couldn't get the child to stop crying. Aaron was crying and crying and crying. And the defendant was overwhelmed."
Further, Lombardi told jurors that doctors had found injuries on Aaron that indicated it was not the first time he had been assaulted.
Jennifer McCarter, Aaron's mother, testified that he was not a particularly fussy infant.
"He was a sleepy boy," Jennifer McCarter told jurors. "He loved to eat."
Damien McCarter's attorney, David LaCross, said McCarter had been preparing to take Aaron for a car ride, something the child found soothing and would help him fall sleep. After placing him in a car seat - though not yet totally strapping in the child - McCarter bumped his hand on a chair, leading the car seat to fall to the floor with Aaron landing face first.
Further, LaCross told jurors that the child had rickets, a condition caused by a vitamin D deficiency that left him with especially fragile bones, and had spent three days in the hospital after complications arose during his birth.
A medical expert for prosecutors testified Tuesday said that even if Aaron had rickets, a fall in a car seat to the floor could not explain his injuries, saying they would require more force.
LaCross disputed the prosecutor's case in a brief interview Monday with the Kitsap Sun.
"The father's description of what happened is exactly what happened," LaCross said.
Re-institutes some social distancing
Though defendants could opt for a bench trial while jury trials were put on hiatus four times as COVID-19 infections surged, many cases involving the most serious accusations languished.
Late last month it appeared the court was resuming normal operations - though masks were required - when a woman was acquitted by a jury for shooting another woman in a dispute that arose over a handicapped parking spot in Bremerton.
Before testimony started Monday in the McCarter trial, Superior Court Judge Michelle Adams re-instituted some social-distancing measures, notably moving jurors out of the jury box, and away from testifying witnesses, and spreading them out in the benches meant for observers.
For the week ending Sunday, an analysis found cases in Washington state jumped 125%.
Superior Court Judge Kevin Hull said he doesn't see the mask requirement lifting anytime soon and said jury selection is being conducted without social-distancing. He said the court is watching not just infection rates but hospitalization rates.
Judges are also deferring service for potential jurors who express health concerns.
"We will have them come back hopefully when it's a better time for them," Hull said.
Doctor under scrutiny
In an eleventh hour addition to the defense's list of witnesses, McCarter's attorney, LaCross, added Woods. LaCross declined to comment on why Woods was added or if he intended to try to call her to testify.
Woods, who had been the medical director at Mary Bridge Children's Child Abuse Intervention Department, was the subject of a 2020 media investigation that found she lacked key credentials. She is no longer employed at Mary Bridge, a hospital spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.
Woods had been on the prosecutor's list of witnesses until March 2021, when she was dropped.
Prosecutor Chad Enright wrote in an email to the Kitsap Sun that Woods had contributed two sentences in thousands of pages of medical and police reports. After reviewing the evidence prosecutors took her off their list of witnesses, Enright said, adding that Woods had not been interviewed by prosecutors for the McCarter case and that they don't know why LaCross included her on his witness list.
"After thoroughly reviewing what each witness did, it became quite clear that Dr. Woods never treated the victim in this case and had no relevant testimony to give," Enright wrote. "She provided no analysis and gave no medical opinions."
Woods' opinions were cited by Kitsap County sheriff's detectives in another pending case involving the death of an infant - a man charged by Kitsap County prosecutors in March 2021 with homicide by abuse for the death of his 5-month-old son. Woods is not included on the prosecutors' list of witnesses in that case.
In May 2021 Kitsap prosecutors dropped first-degree assault charges against a woman accused of injuring her 6-month-old daughter in which Woods had been consulted by Kitsap County sheriff's detectives.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Man facing charges in baby's death is the first murder trial in Kitsap since pandemic shutdowns