JEFFERSON — A majority of the members of a jury that never had an opportunity to deliberate on the fate of a 31-year-old Lake Mills woman accused of child abuse likely would have acquitted her had the presiding judge not have dismissed the charge.
Amanda J. McGowan, 31, Lake Mills, had been charged with one count of child abuse-recklessly causing harm to a child who was in her care, after a four-month-old infant for whom she was caring sustained head trauma from an unknown incident in March 2016.
Pleading not guilty and maintaining that she fell down her basement stairs while carrying the baby, McGowan took the case to trial last week before a Jefferson County jury of seven men and eight women — including the son of an area police chief, the brother of a retired Fort Atkinson police officer and a Jefferson County Zoning Department employee.
According to testimony of several physicians, the baby boy reportedly received a subdural hematoma, bifrontal hemorrhage, bruising on the left side of the head and possibly right ear and reportedly bruising on the right arm in two locations and retinal hemorrhages.
Based on medical analysis of doctors at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, the injuries sustained by the child reportedly did not match McGowan’s description of the incident and fell under the criteria which led them to define the injury as child abuse.
Other than the possibility of blunt-force trauma from an unknown source, the prosecution offered no explanation of how the injury did occur.
At the close of evidence on Wednesday, March 14, McGowan’s attorney, Rebecca Coffee made a motion for dismissal. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Weston accepted the motion and reserved action until the conclusion of Coffee’s presentation of witnesses Thursday, March 15.
However, later on Wednesday, Coffee filed a brief with the judge seeking for her to take action on the motion to dismiss per past rulings and court decisions.
Weston took that under advisement Thursday morning and made her decision to dismiss the charge.
The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office is conferring with the state Department of Justice, which handles all felony appellate matters, on the McGowan case.
Prior to the ruling, Weston had opined to Jefferson County Assistant District Attorney Theresa Beck that she did not believe the prosecutor had given the jurors any conduct or act by McGowan to be considered as being reckless and, therefore, did not have a case to be presented to the jury.
Per law, the prosecution has the burden of proof to prove each element of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
Following the case’s dismissal, the judge spoke with the jurors to inform them of the dismissal and her general reasoning. At that time, a number of jurors spoke with her about their overall impression of the case.
One juror who agreed to speak anonymously to the Daily Union stated that during the jury’s final moments together, one of the members asked if they could take a straw vote since they otherwise would not get a chance to do so.
She said that by a show of hands, the majority of the jurors, even without having heard any direct evidence on McGowan’s behalf other than her own statements, were siding toward voting not guilty.
“I’m sure, when it got down to it, we probably would have been unanimous,” the juror noted.
When one juror expressed concern if the prosecution could charge McGowan again, Weston reportedly stated that no, due to the double jeopardy clause in the U.S. Constitution a subject cannot be charged for the same crime twice under the same set of evidence.
She said the jurors also wondered whether the alleged victim’s family still would put McGowan through a civil trial.
“Even though we listened to the experts, we didn’t feel that the state proved that she (McGowan) constantly changed her statement,” the juror said.
During her opening remarks, Beck stressed to the jury to focus on the credibility of McGowan’s interviews with police investigators and whether her conduct was reckless.
“We didn’t feel she (Beck) proved it; she (McGowan) was very consistent,” the juror told the Union. “We just didn’t feel that they had a strong case against her.”
She said another panel member noted to the group that it is not entirely surprising to recall every last detail of a fall.
In her statements to police, McGowan maintained that the incident involving the child’s injury was from a fall down the stairs. However, details such as which step she was on, whether the child struck his head on the wall and whether she had, indeed, landed on top of the child varied.
The jurors reportedly took particular note of her statements about not being certain if she had the child’s head secure at the time of the fall.
“She felt the baby had a blow to the head,” the juror said. “She thought it was only one blow, but she really wasn’t sure. When you fall down steps and sustain some of the bruising, we don’t know what they were trying to tell us. If you are hanging onto the baby while you are falling, couldn’t it happen that way?”
Some of the jurors opined that the officer involved in the primary investigation perhaps just did not ask the right questions.
“One of the things we wondered about was that they never got into detail about it being cement steps that were under the carpet,” she said. “They would always bring up the wood baseboard, but not that it was cement steps.”
Panel members reportedly agreed that it was likely the defense would have brought more information on those details forward.
During her testimony, child pediatrician Dr. Barbara Knox indicated that there are four base causes that could be associated with the extent retinal hemorrhages the child had.
Per the criteria, such hemorrhages in a child could only result from a 10 meter (30 foot) fall, a severe car accident, a 40-pound television falling on a child’s head or child abuse. The injury was defined as child abuse as it did not fall into one of the other three criteria.
However, when discussing the case after it was dismissed, a member of the jury recalled that McGowan had mentioned in her statements to police on more than one occasion that she was afraid she had crushed the child.
The juror noted that no indication was made by the prosecution’s witnesses that a fall down the carpeted cement stairs could equate to any of the other criteria, including McGowan’s suggestion that she might have landed on top of the child.
“What we thought, especially about Dr. Knox, was how she just tried to forcibly drill her opinion to the jury,” she said. “If the officer would have maybe done a little bit better of her investigation, it might not have gotten to this point at all.
“They were never up front with the woman (McGowan) to begin with and she always let them in her house and never shed away from any of that,” the juror said. “She always answered the questions. They were trying to say she hesitated, but the few times that she did, she was trying to think in her head now how did this happen. We felt she always answered the questions and always invited them into her house.”
Per testimony during the trial, during the initial return trips for follow-up investigation, the Lake Mills officers did not reveal that the situation was under investigation as child abuse. McGowan was aware of the severity of the injuries due to contact with the child’s mother via text messaging, but was apparently unaware of the nature of the investigation.
Also, the juror pointed out that panel members took note of the fact that the officer’s description of McGowan’s statements and McGowan’s own words were not the same based on viewing the actual videos of the interviews.
“When they would replay it in court, it didn’t match up and that was kind of interesting,” the juror said.
Overall, she said, the majority of the jurors didn’t feel that the prosecution could really prove that something else happened to the baby.
“Even though the experts said those four points had to have happened, they couldn’t prove it,” the juror said.
She said one man was a bit hesitant, but she was convinced based on the straw poll of the panel that it likely would have been a not-guilty verdict had it gone that far.
The juror admitted that the panel members were a little intimidated by the members of the Guardians of the Children biker organization who were in the gallery during the trial. The group is a child abuse advocacy group with a mission to recognize and react to child abuse and educate the public to do the same.
“We didn’t know who they were,” she said.
As directed, the jurors were not allowed to talk to anyone and were not allowed to ask questions.
“We were not sure why these people were there, so we didn’t know if they were good or bad,” the juror said.
After the fact, they learned more about the group and were relieved to learn of their mission and apparent intent.
During the discussion with Weston, many of the jurors expressed similar viewpoints on a variety of issues associated with the trial that they had not been able to talk about.
“It was amazing to me how many of us were on the same wavelength,” she said.
Continuing, the juror said the panel was very in tune and was a very diversified group.
“We had a nice broad spectrum of people so I thought they picked well,” she said.
In addition, despite the ultimate outcome, the juror pointed out that the panel was treated very well by the court staff.
“I don’t think any of the jurors feel bad about the experience,” she said.
Coffee, McGowan’s attorney, noted that McGowan has maintained her innocence from day one of the accident.
“She is very happy that the child who was hurt during the accident is OK,” she said.
Coffee said McGowan is relieved the case is over with and grateful for the jury members’ service and willingness to share their opinions.