Murder trial: Jury hears from military psychologist

Defense attorney Vince Rabil (left) and Christopher Edwards (right)

DUSTIN CHANDLER/MCDOWELL NEWS

The presiding judge denied last-minute evidence and a clinical psychologist on active duty took the stand in the eighth day of the Christopher Edwards trial.

He faces murder and abuse charges in the 2012 death of Lily Anne Kerr, a 20-month-old who was left in his care.

On Wednesday, in the absence of the jury, defense attorney Vince Rabil approached Judge Jeff Hunt with new military documents allegedly discovered the night before by the defendant’s mother, Debra Brown. Within the documents provided by Rabil include Xerox copies of an Achievement Medal with the recommendation for the award attached and orders for deployment to Korea.

On Tuesday during cross-examination, prosecuting attorney Kent Brown questioned sections of Edwards’ military records that did not include certain aspects of combat recognition and documentation that he had been deployed to Korea during active service. The introduction of the new documents, according to Rabil on Wednesday, was an attempt to clarify inconsistencies argued the day before and validate the defendant’s achievements and experiences.

“They’re material [to the case] because this is the first document that covers his overall performance,” said Rabil. “Without it, the jury is left with the impression that he was making this stuff up.”

The state objected to the new evidence, citing that a page was missing from the Achievement Medal documents as well as a misspelling on the recommendation. Additionally, the state argued that since this discovery was made the night before and, unlike the previously disclosed evidence, had not been certified by the United States military, its authenticity was suspect.

Debra Brown, who testified in court on Tuesday afternoon and took the stand again on Wednesday, claimed that she had been in possession of these documents and most, if not everything, that was brought home by her son during service and kept in a fire safe, but a house fire in Nov. 15 of last year had taken 95 percent of her belongings.

“I always kept everything,” said Debra Brown. “We kept all kinds of stuff in the safe – guns with serial numbers, deeds to land, his high school rings, birth certificates, just important stuff.”

During cross-examination, Kent Brown stressed that Debra had at least “six to 12” reported meetings with Rabil since 2015 to disclose any and all documents related to her son’s medical and military history before the trial started.

“When the house burned, I pulled out all I could,” said Debra Brown. “The safe was black from all the water and smoke and we didn’t look in there until last night when we were moving stuff around.”

“You had three years and all of these meetings to bring this to Mr. Rabil,” said Kent Brown, “and you just discovered you had these last night.”

“I had no idea it was in the safe until last night,” said Debra Brown, to the point of tears.

After hearing both sides, Judge Hunt denied the defense’s motion to introduce the documents, on the grounds that they had not been properly certified with authenticity and were introduced at the last minute to the state.

As the jury entered on Wednesday, the defense introduced Dr. Jennifer Sapia, Clinical Psychologist/Aeromedical Psychologist in the North Carolina Army National Guard Medical Services Corp.

According to Sapia, the doctor met with Edwards on five separate occasions since 2015 and evaluated him based on his military and medical background as well as contributing disciplinary factors in his childhood.

“Mr. Edwards displays a complex picture, with febril seizures, attention-hyperactive deficit disorder (ADHD), head injuries in sports and military, psychosis, associative amnesia – these were all part of the background,” said Sapia, reading from her preliminary findings. “Also looking at PTSD, he has a childhood trauma history and multiple things he was exposed to in the military.”

On the stand, Sapia claimed that Edwards disclosed his numerous encounters in combat zones and violent territory during service, including two previously mentioned IED explosions, an on-site duty to identify and reconstruct body parts and a reported instance of watching a child get crushed by tanks in Korea. These incidents, along with a dependence on self-medication – marijuana, alcohol, Spice and bath salts – and side effects from taking prescribed anti-malaria pills – contributed to what she considered intrusive symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance and elevated arousal.

Additionally, Sapia claimed that during the repeated visits with Edwards, he disclosed numerous instances of discipline during childhood – predominately being spanked by a belt by his father – that she deemed child abuse and contributed to early onset trauma.

“What I found significant was the childhood abuse he suffered, which was pretty traumatic for him,” said Sapia. “He was hit by a belt with a buckle that had his father’s name, and he was kept out of school because the bruises were recognizable. At the time, he had a hard time reconciling what he now considers to be abuse.”

By summer of 2010, according to Sapia, Edwards began displaying signs of disassociation – including memory loss and loss of conscious behavior – that, along with the displayed PTSD, sent his mental health into sharp decline, with reported incidents of blackouts, car accidents and severe psychosis.

Rabil asked Sapia if all of the considered symptoms of PTSD and disassociation could be seen as important factors in the events of Oct. 30, 2012, in which 20-month-old Lily Anne Kerr was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead days later after suffering severe head trauma while in Edwards’ sole care.

“Yes, I would say so,” said Sapia.

Testimony continues on Thursday.

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