Three-year-old Autumn Franks suffered a fatal head injury April 30, 2008. Of that, there is no doubt.
Eight doctors trooped before a Pierce County jury over the past three weeks to discuss in excruciating detail the cracks that spread across the little girl’s skull after a blow of some kind in her family’s Lakewood apartment.
The question for the jury is, who was responsible: Leanne Bechtel, the live-in girlfriend of Autumn’s father, or the family dog, Dozer?
Deputy prosecutor Lori Kooiman said Thursday that the answer is simple: Bechtel, who was charged with second-degree murder last year after a world-renowned expert on children’s head trauma told prosecutors Autumn did not die in an accident.
In a long and passionate closing argument, Kooiman told the jury the girl’s injuries could have come only at the hands of Bechtel, who was alone with Autumn the morning she was hurt.
Bechtel, then 24, must have snapped during a moment of stress or frustration and slammed the girl’s head against something hard, the deputy prosecutor said. It’s the only possible explanation for the “constellation of injuries” Autumn suffered, Kooiman said, injuries that doctors most often see in the victims of car accidents.
“Who was responsible? Only the defendant,” the deputy prosecutor said. “It wasn’t Dozer. It wasn’t anybody else in the house.”
Defense attorney Brett Purtzer argued just as strenuously that the dog was responsible, that the overactive pit bull knocked Autumn off a couch and she landed on her head.
The medical experts who testified at trial said that was highly unlikely, but they could not rule it out, noted Purtzer, who began his presentation by displaying photos of the Titanic and the World Trade Center towers burning after the 9/11 attacks.
“What do you think the odds were of that happening?” the defense attorney said as the images flashed across a courtroom screen. “It was unthinkable.”
Purtzer told jurors Bechtel loved Autumn like her own child and has stuck to her account from the beginning: that Dozer was running crazy in the house that morning and jumped up on the couch and knocked off Autumn.
“She never, ever deviated from that,” he said. “Ever.”
Bechtel moved in with Autumn’s father, Chris Franks, sometime before the fatal day. Autumn and her older brother joined them later in their one-bedroom apartment when their mother couldn’t take care of them anymore.
Bechtel looked after the kids while their father went off to work. Franks testified his daughter and Bechtel developed a close relationship, and Autumn called his girlfriend “Mommy.”
Purtzer told jurors there was no history of abuse in the house – in fact, quite the opposite.
“Those kids were thriving,” he argued.
Kooiman said that didn’t matter. Bechtel might have been a good caretaker and probably loved Autumn, the deputy prosecutor said, but the evidence shows it was Bechtel who killed the girl.
While there was little forensics evidence gathered at the apartment – no baseball bat with the girl’s hair on it or blood on a counter’s edge – Autumn’s body told the tale, Kooiman said.
Every doctor who testified on behalf of the state – a list that included the county’s former medical examiner and the emergency room doctors who treated Autumn – said it was their opinion the girl died from trauma brought on by a violent assault, Kooiman said.
The chances that the injuries resulted from Dozer’s actions were “one in a million,” the deputy prosecutor said.
“We’re not reaching,” Kooiman said. “We’re not trying to offer explanations about what happened. The injuries are doing it for us.
“She lost that little girl due to her own actions.”
Purtzer said “there was no motive on earth” that would have caused his client to hurt Autumn.
“She’s not just not guilty,” he said. “She’s innocent. They have wrongfully charged Ms. Bechtel.”
The jury, which got the case just before lunch Thursday, is expected to resume deliberations Friday.