6 years later, case finally goes to trial

Becky Campbell • Feb 21, 2012 at 10:48 PM

A Virginia woman accused more than six years ago of trying to smother her foster daughter went on trial Tuesday.

Melony Roberts, 31, is charged with one count of aggravated child abuse for an incident that allegedly happened Sept. 24, 2004, at Johnson City Medical Center.

Roberts’ trial got under way Tuesday morning with jury selection, which was completed by lunch. A final panel of three men, nine women was chosen, but during opening statements one of those jurors became ill and was excused.

Currently, the jury is comprised of four men, eight women and one male alternate.

Roberts was at JCMC with a 9-month-old girl in her care because the child was having unexplained medical problems. The child was referred to JCMC from a hospital in Clinch Valley, Va., and admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit.

After a period of time with no medical events, the child was moved to the epilepsy monitoring unit. She was hooked up to monitoring leads that went to equipment that documented all brain activity.

During opening statements, Assistant District Attorney General Janet Vest Hardin told the jurors they would watch a video showing the baby acting like a normal 9-month-old until Roberts picks her up and takes her off camera.

That’s when the child had some type of medical event and Roberts called for help.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, I don’t know what a video is worth,” Hardin said. “The video will show you the appearance and demeanor of a person like nothing else can.”

Defense attorney James Bell, of Knoxville, told the jury there are two victims in this case — the child, now 8 years old and living in another state, and his client.

“I’m here to tell you Mrs. Roberts could not, did not, would not harm that child,” Bell said. “She does not have a black heart.”

He said the evidence will show the child had “medical events” in the presence of other people as well, not just his client.

The video came into evidence through Wayne St. John, an LPN who worked in the epilepsy monitoring unit at the time.

St. John testified about how the monitoring was conducted and what was documented the day the child had an incident off camera. His job consisted of watching a monitor of live activity in the child’s room as well as an EEG monitor showing the brain activity recorded from several leads attached to the child’s head.

St. John testified that the single camera in the pediatric room was targeted to the crib and he had the audio turned down to give the family privacy, so he didn’t hear the child’s whimpers after Roberts picked her up.

On the video, the child is initially playing in the crib, making normal sounds for a 9-month-old while Roberts is heard talking on the phone.

A nurse entered the room, talked to the baby and to Roberts after she ended her phone call and then left.

That’s when Roberts picked up the child after she fussed a little.

Off-camera, the child can be heard making sounds as if she’s catching her breath. At first the sounds are a little fast, but slow down and within a few seconds stop altogether. That’s when Roberts puts the lifeless child back in the crib, says her name a couple of times and then hits a button to call the nurse and leaves the room to get help.

St. John testified that after September 2004, a second camera was added to pediatric rooms to have a view of the entire room and the audio was turned up so the person monitoring the room could listen to everything going on around the patient.

Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood is presiding over the trial. It is one of Judge Lynn Brown’s cases Blackwood is handling while Brown is out with medical issues.

Blackwood sent the jury home around 4 p.m. and the trial will resume at 9 a.m. today.

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