GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The trial of a Wyoming mother accused of neglecting her baby son last summer, leading to his death, began Tuesday.
Lovily Johnson, 23, is charged with murder and first-degree child abuse in the death of her 6-month-old son Noah.
After a jury of nine women and five men was seated in Kent County Circuit Court, Johnson’s defense attorney Jonathan Schildgen asked that some photos of Noah taken after his death be excluded from trial, saying they could unfairly prejudice jurors. The judge denied the request.
In opening statements, Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker told jurors that Johnson fed Noah only once in the three days leading up to his death, then left him in his car seat in her sweltering apartment while she went out with friends, eating, smoking marijuana and relaxing in air conditioning elsewhere.
“What really killed this baby boy was his mother,” Becker said. “This woman left her 6-month-old son — didn’t feed him, didn’t change his diaper, didn’t change his clothes, did absolutely nothing. And when I say ‘absolutely nothing,’ I mean this woman didn’t set eyes on her son for 32 hours.”
Schildgen argued there is no proof of precisely how Noah died, suggesting he may have died of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or some other cause.
“It’s not going to be quite as dramatic and aggressive and maybe angry as the prosecutor wants it to seem. It’s tragic. It’s sad, is what it is,” Schildgen told the jury.
He presented Johnson as a single mother living in housing for victims of domestic abuse.
The first witness to take the stand was a doctor at the emergency room where Johnson took Noah on July 19, 2017. Authorities say Noah had already been dead for a day by then.
“He was not breathing, had no pulse. There was a very foul smell to him. His body temperature was cool. He was not pink and he looked dead,” Dr. Barbara Wynn said of the baby.
The prosecutor then presented the jury with graphic photos of Noah after he was brought to the hospital. In them, his body was already showing signs of decomposition.
“The car seat we were told the child was brought to the hospital in, there’s some type of wet brown substance in the seat of the car seat and there’s a bottle of curdled milk,” Wyoming Police Department Office April Kroshel testified.
Henry Woods, who is a father figure to Johnson, said she called him to ask him to drive her and the baby to the hospital.
“She said, ‘The baby ain’t breathing,'” Woods recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean the baby ain’t breathing?’ She said, ‘The baby ain’t breathing.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you call the ambulance or something?'”
The jury saw video of investigators interrogating Johnson after her baby’s death. Police say her story changed throughout that interview.
Johnson claimed she left Noah with a babysitter, but Detective Margaret McKinnon testified that was not true. The woman with whom Johnson said she left Noah also took the stand, saying she did not babysit and was shocked when police contacted her.
In the video of the interview, Johnson could be seen weeping as she talked about the struggles of being a single mother and finding time to work and for herself.
She went on to say she didn’t check on Noah for the entire day before he died even though she was home with him “because he wasn’t crying.”
The trial could wrap up as early as Wednesday.
During a hearing last week, Johnson rejected a plea deal that would have given her a minimum sentence of between 15 and 25 years in prison. If convicted at trial, she faces a life sentence.
But her case is ripe for an appeal after jail staff opened a letter she sent to her attorney and inappropriately forwarded its contents to police. Detectives and prosecutors say they never read the letter and jail officials said it was an “honest mistake” that it was passed on. The judge threatened to hold jail staff in contempt of court if it happens again.
—24 Hour News 8’s Barton Deiters contributed to this report.