Guilty verdict in Baby Faith trial

Christine Johnson and Baby Faith Mason, before and after injuries

Christine Johnson, found guilty of injury to a child causing serious bodily injury and injury to a child by omission, has been sentenced to 65 years in prison. She will be given credit for the two years she was jailed before her trial and will be eligible for parole in 28 years. The baby's father, Darrell Mason, remains jailed on similar charges, but no trial date has been set.

•••

Christine Johnson went on trial this week in Criminal District Court in Jefferson County charged with injury to a child causing serious bodily injury. The child was her month-old daughter Faith Mason, who was brought to Christus St. Mary Hospital in Port Arthur with multiple fractures to both arms, both legs, her spine and a broken neck with bleeding on the brain. Johnson is also charged with injury to a child by omission in case she claimed Baby Faith’s injuries were caused by Darrell Mason, the baby’s teen-aged father, who will be tried later on similar charges.  If convicted on either of these first degree felony charges, she faces life in prison – and prosecutors indicated they would seek the maximum penalty after she reportedly  declined to accept a plea deal on the eve of the trial that would have given her a 35-year sentence.

Judge John Stevens is presiding over this emotional trial in a case that became a media sensation in August 2013. Eleven men and one woman comprise the jury that will decide Johnson’s fate. Mason, also charged with injury to a child, will be tried at a later date. Both he and Johnson have been held in the Jefferson County Jail since shortly after the incident, unable to make high bonds. Hers is $250,000 while his is $200,000.

The facts of the case are disturbing. Christine Johnson was 19 when she gave birth to her first child; the father was her cousin, Darrell Mason, 17. They were living in a Port Arthur apartment with Linda Fields, described as Johnson’s aunt and Mason’s cousin.

Texas Department of Family Protective Services (CPS) spokesperson Shari Pulliam told The Examiner’s Sharon Brooks in 2013 that Fields herself “has significant CPS history. We’ve removed five children from her. Her rights were terminated due to neglectful supervision.”

To compound the generational tragedy, Pulliam confirmed that Johnson herself was taken from her mother as a baby. “She was removed from her mother as an infant, and she was placed into foster care,” Pulliam said. “She was raised by another family member, on the paternal side, and we never received any further complaints about Christine’s care.”

The first witness in the trial was Linda Fields, who testified she accompanied Johnson to the emergency room with Baby Faith. She was an evasive witness, and when confronted with a statement she gave to police that bore her signature, she said when she read it after she signed it, she asked the detective to throw it out because it contained things she claimed she didn’t say.

Fields’ muddled testimony got the state’s case off to a fitful start, but lead prosecutor Pat Knauth and co-counsel Randi King regained the momentum by presenting a series of witnesses present in the ER when Baby Faith was brought in Aug. 18, 2013.

Danny Carey was the triage nurse at the St. Mary’s emergency room that night and the first to observe Baby Faith’s injuries. He managed to retain a professional demeanor as he listed the trauma he observed in treating the infant he described as “near death.”

Angela Webb is a registered nurse who testified she is currently director of two free-standing emergency centers, but that night she was the charge nurse at the St. Mary ER. When Carey realized the seriousness of Faith’s condition, he bundled up the infant and brought her to Webb.

Suddenly Knauth’s earlier warning to the jury that this would be an emotional case came true with a vengeance as Webb began to break down on the stand. Through tears she described how she asked Johnson what had happened to her baby and received no response. Her voice grew louder as she repeated that testimony, then directly addressed the defendant. “Tell me what happened to your baby! Tell me anything! Lie to me and tell me she fell off the bed, but say something; don’t just stand there and stare at me!” she finally concluded, near hysterics.

Like jurors, spectators and court personnel, Knauth was visibly affected by Webb’s outburst but let it continue. When he proffered a stack of photos of a battered Baby Faith to be introduced into evidence, he asked a weeping Webb to confirm each one was taken in the ER that night. Sobbing convulsively, she nodded at each photo as he offered her a Kleenex and continued the procession of images.

The inescapable conclusion was that what Webb, a seasoned professional, saw in this case —trauma inflicted on a month-old baby — unnerved her as the mother of a young daughter herself.

“As we worked on the baby, she stopped breathing,” testified Webb. “We performed CPR until we brought her back, then intubated her and put her on a ventilator.” At that point, realizing the extent of her injuries, they put out a call for help to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, widely acknowledged as one of the finest in the country. The Houston hospital dispatched a “kangaroo crew” composed of an emergency physician, registered trauma nurse and emergency medical technician who were flown by jet to Jack Brooks Airport then rushed by ambulance to the St. Mary ER.

When they returned to the airport with the badly wounded Baby Faith clinging to life, they flew back to Houston – and into the glare of the white-hot spotlight in one of the largest media markets in the U.S.

The paper trail in this case is extensive. Each day DA Investigator James Arcenaux wheels in a cart laden with witness statements, photographs, affidavits and other documents including 1,928 pages of records from Texas Children’s Hospital, and another 500 from Christus St.Mary.

The trial began its third day with Angel Fields, another cousin of the defendant, testifying that at Linda Fields’ home, she saw Baby Faith was having trouble breathing and her eyes were twitching. She insisted they take her to the hospital immediately.

Like other witnesses who saw Johnson that night, Angel Fields testified the defendant stood there silently while this drama played out, expressing no emotion as her baby hovered near death. On cross-examination by defense attorney Ryan Matuska, Fields said Johnson had the mind of a 12-year-old. This drew an immediate objection from Knauth, who said this raised issues beyond the scope of the jury’s consideration, since an insanity defense had not been raised.

Judge Stevens sent the jury out and immediately convened a hearing on the subject. He noted there had been a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation that concluded Johnson was competent to stand trial, and despite learning disabilities that classified her as a special education student, she was not disabled and had not been treated for mental illness in the past. Jamie Matuska – Ryan’s wife and co-counsel – said, “Your honor, she doesn’t realize the consequences of her actions.” In response, the judge read the psychiatric report into the trial record and said the defense could not argue competence in the guilt phase of the trial.

This set the stage for what might prove to be the turning point of the trial. That night at St. Mary’s, Johnson was interviewed by Port Arthur Detective Herbert Otis. The video of that interview played for the jury showed Johnson sitting impassively answering his questions with monosyllabic replies. He tells her that if Baby Faith dies, she will be charged with capital murder and face life in prison or the death penalty. This finally drew a response from Johnson as a few tears streaked down her cheek.

In response to gentle probing by Otis, she admits that two days earlier, she had been asleep when Baby Faith’s crying woke her up. “I got mad and jerked her out of her crib,” she said. Otis made her demonstrate by picking a folder up off the bed she was sitting on and she jerked it with some force. He asked her to do it again and she did, with some force.

The final witness that day was Dr. Reena Isaac, who had treated Baby Faith at Texas Children’s Hospital. Her searing testimony utilized photos, x-rays, drawings and a Powerpoint presentation to catalogue the infant’s injuries, including so many fractures that she testified the radiologist “stopped counting.”

Isaac had seen the interview video where Johnson admitted snatching Baby Faith from her crib and testified that was the likely cause of her broken neck.

To obtain a conviction, the state must prove Johnson “knowingly, intentionally or recklessly caused serious bodily injury to a child.” They don’t have to explain how each of Baby Faith’s many injuries were caused; the broken neck alone could be enough to convict. Of course, juries are unpredictable, so this case may yet take an unexpected turn.

Dr. Isaac is expected to be the state’s final witness. Matuska has said he plans to call five witnesses for the defense, but Judge Stevens has said mental health testimony will likely not be allowed, and Knauth is sure to object vociferously to any attempt to introduce it.

Barring some unexpected development, this case should go to the jury perhaps Friday afternoon, Aug. 28. Knauth has said he plans to bring Baby Faith to court if her health permits so the jury can see the victim in this case.

Baby Faith is in a therapeutic foster home. Her neck has healed, and she no longer has to wear a cervical collar. She celebrated her second birthday in July, but the extent of her brain damage is not known as she still doesn’t speak or walk. The parental rights of Johnson and Mason were terminated less than two months after her hospitalization by Family Court Judge Larry Thorne, acting on a emergency request by CPS, who will be seeking a “forever family” to adopt the child.

Sharon Brooks contributed to the reporting of this story.

shadow