Mother guilty of felony child abuse in connection with death of infant

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But found not guilty on second degree murder charge

By John Barnhart


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After a three day trial that concluded Thursday, a Bedford County jury found Cecilia Burnette, 26, of Bedford, not guilty of second degree murder. The jury, however, found her guilty of felony child abuse and recommended a sentence of eight years in prison.

Burnette was charged with killing her nine-month-old daughter, Marissa, on Sept. 2, 2008, by shaking her violently enough that the infant suffered fatal brain damage. Prosecutors tried to point to inconsistent statements Burnette used as proof of her guilt while defense attorneys suggested injuries to the infant were caused not by Burnette, but rather by her boyfriend, Joshua Cheeks.

Michael Doucette, the special prosecutor brought in for the case from Lynchburg, questioned medical experts that testified that the brain injuries that Marissa suffered could not have been the result of an accident.

Dr. Donald Kees, vice chairman of Roanoke Memorial Hospital's pediatric department treated Marissa after she was transported from Bedford Memorial's emergency room. Dr. Kees said that there was no sign of external injury to the child's head, but she was unresponsive and her eyes were fixed and dilated. He ordered a CT scan of Marissa's head and belly. Dr. Kees said that he suspected a head injury.

What he found was consistent with an infant who had been violently shaken, he testified, with the shaking veins inside the skull, and leading to the brain, resulting in bleeding between the skull and the brain. He said there can also be tearing of the brain, and the brain can be bruised from banging against the interior of the skull.

Dr. Kees also had a pediatric ophthalmologist examine Marissa's eyes. This is because the sort of violent shaking he was seeing evidence of also results in retinal hemorrhages.

"She had too many to count," he said.

Dr. Kees said that the extent of injury he saw indicates abusive head trauma. He said that minor bumps would not cause this. Dr. Kees said that he reported what he found to police.

Dr. Paul Benson, the state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Marissa after she was pronounced dead, confirmed that the cause of her death was brain damage. He said that there was bleeding between the brain and the skull, bleeding directly on the brain and bleeding inside the brain. The front of the brain was also bruised and the brain was swollen.

"The cause of Marissa Burnette's death was blunt force injury to the head," stated Dr. Benson. Benson said that the severity of the damage was typical for an injury that was not accidental.

Another medical expert, Dr. Robin Foster of Virginia Commonwealth University, testified that Marissa died of abusive head trauma. A high speed automobile accident could cause the type of brain injury that Marissa suffered, but a short fall could not do it, Foster stated.

While medical evidence demonstrated that Marissa died from injuries inflicted by an adult., the medical experts agreed that it did not point to the identity of the adult. From that point on, the prosecution put witnesses on the stand to try and prove that the adult in question was Cecilia Burnette while the defense tried to cast suspicion on Cheek, 24, of Bedford, Burnette's boyfriend when the death occurred. Burnette and Cheek were living together at the time.

The prosecutor brought Brenda Lacy, the babysitter that both Burnette, and Adam Davis, Marissa's biological father, used to care for their child, to the stand. At that point, the two were alternating custody of the infant with Burnette having her for seven days, and then Davis having her for seven days. When Burnette brought her on August 6, Lacy noticed bruises on the baby's face and arm. Burnette claimed that the mark on her arm was a rash from a food allergy and the bruise on Marissa's face came when the infant grabbed fingernail clippers out of her hand and jabbed herself. Lacy was suspicious and contacted social services. A social services investigation was in progress when Marissa died.

On Sept. 2, 2008, Dr. Stacy Katany saw Marissa late in the morning when Burnette brought the infant, telling the doctor that she had been sick with cold symptoms for several days. Dr. Katany testified that she found signs of a middle ear infection and redness in the back of Marissa's throat.

"She seemed alert," said Dr. Katany. "I did not see anything abnormal."

Dr. Katany also described Burnette's demeanor.

"She seemed a little bit rushed. She seemed angry," Dr. Katany testified.

Cheek testified that he began dating Burnette while she was pregnant with Marissa. Later they moved in together and he was at the hospital when Marissa was born. He said that he frequently cared for Marissa and hoped to have children of his own.

Cheek testified that one day, he came home and Burnette tossed the baby to him from two yards away.

"If I hadn't caught her, she would have hit the ground," Cheek said.

According to Cheek, Burnette told him that Marissa wouldn't stop crying and told him to make her stop.

On Sept. 2, Cheek said that he gave Marissa a bath while Burnette went to get Dr. Katany's prescription filled. Marissa had to be cleaned up because she had vomited on herself and Burnette.

"As she was sitting in the bathtub, she looked like she wasn't there at all," Cheek said.

After bathing her, he dried her and dressed her, then put her in a swing. Cheek testified that Marissa started to shake and her eyes rolled. He said that he called Burnette, but she told him not to worry about it.

That evening, around 5:30 p.m. his grandmother took Burnette to get her other car. Burnette had a vehicle that Adam Davis was familiar with and often kept it parked at another location so that Davis wouldn't realize that she was living with Cheek.

Cheek said that while he was watching her, Marissa "just went lifeless, limp."

He said that he initially tried to call Burnette, not realizing that she had not taken her cell phone with her. Then he tried calling her grandmother, but couldn't reach her. Then he called his mother, reaching her on the second try. When he reached her, she told him to call 911.

On cross examination by Burnette's defense attorneys, Cheek often answered "I don't know," or "I can't remember" to questions. Hilary Griffith, one of Burnette's attorneys, read a list of six phone numbers Cheek called that day; Cheek couldn't identify most of them.

Burnette's defense attorneys put several witnesses on the stand who testified that Burnette was an attentive, nurturing mother. Burnette, however, did not testify.

In his closing arguments, Doucette, the special prosecutor, told the jury that Burnette had lied to investigators from the beginning.

"We've heard her lies as she started adding facts," Doucette said, referring to two interviews that Investigator Tim Stanley, of the Bedford Police Department, conducted with Burnette.

"Why would she lie?" Doucette asked.

Doucette said that lies dealing Burnette's living arrangement at the beginning are understandable. He said, however, that Burnette continued to lie after there was no longer a custody battle for Marissa. He argued that the lies pointed to Burnette as the person who killed the baby.

Doucette said that Joshua Cheek, on the other hand, had told the same story every time he was interviewed.

"Josh was consistent from beginning to end," Doucette said.

Doucette noted that a baby takes over person's life and referred to prosecution witnesses who testified to a lack of bonding between Burnette and her baby and that Cheek was the more attentive adult. He also said that Dr. Katany had testified that Burrnette appeared anxious and angry on Sept. 2 and Cheek's testimony that Burnette had once thrown the baby to him from six feet away. He argued that Burnette's frustration culminated in the events of Sept. 2.

"The defendant's frustration with Marissa rose to the point where she shook Marissa Burnette to death," Doucette said.

"Cecilia Burnette did not kill her daughter," said David Oblon, Burnette's lead defense attorney. "There was no reason for her to hurt her daughter. Her real shortcoming was that she was in love with a bad man. Joshua Cheek probably shook the baby."

Oblon said that Cheek was stuck watching the infant all day and he was also the last person to be with her before she died. Furthermore, he made a number of phone calls before calling 911.

"What innocent person does not call 911?" Oblon asked. "He didn't call 911 because he knew he had done something wrong, he killed the baby."

Oblon portrayed Burnette as attentive to her daughter.

"This is a woman who takes her baby to the doctor, who goes to get medicine for her," he said. "She's an attentive mother."

Oblon went over the elements that the Commonwealth had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order to get a second degree murder conviction. One of these is that the act was done with malice. He also urged the jurors to avoid speculating about what may have happened, but didn't hear in testimony.

"This is a circumstantial case where the circumstantial evidence is very thin," Oblon said. "If you find Cecilia guilty of murder, you are likely to let a killer go free."

The prosecution disagreed.

"It's absurd to say that you will let a killer walk if you convict her," Doucette said in rebuttal.

Doucette denied that Joshua Cheek had any history of violence because he had a felony conviction.

"What were Joshua's felonies?" Doucette asked. "Taking checks from his mother," he said, answering his own question.

Doucette also said that Cheek was not frustrated about having to take care of a baby. He said that testimony showed that he had gotten up early that day, letting Burnette sleep, took care of the baby and then fell asleep with the baby sleeping in his arms. He argued that this is neither frustrated or selfish.

"That's loving," Doucette said.

Doucette said that Cheek's failure to immediately call 911 when the baby stopped breathing was not a sign of guilt.

"Josh Cheek is not a rocket scientist. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so he panicked when the baby stopped breathing,” Doucette stated.

The jurors deliberated for 90 minutes before reaching their verdict. While Burnette sat by her father, weeping quietly, the jurors deliberated 45 minutes before sentencing Burnette to eight years in prison and imposing a $75,000 fine.

Burnette remains free on bond pending sentencing by Judge James Updike on May 26.

"Naturally I'm disappointed that she was convicted of felony child abuse," Oblon commented. Nevertheless, he was pleased that the jury agreed with him on the murder charge. A second degree murder conviction carries a sentence between five and 40 years in prison.

"She's devastated," Oblon said when asked about Burnette's reaction to the verdict.

"This jury was one of the most attentive juries I've every seen," said Doucette after the trial. "I certainly respect their verdict."

Doucette said that he would have liked to have seen a different verdict, but that the jury did find Burnette guilty of a felony. "They found her to be criminally culpable," he said.

The Sheriff's Office, which is responsible for courthouse security had five deputies in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered.

"We're just proactive," commented Captain Timothy Hayden.

Hayden said that the extra security was typical in cases like this one where emotions run high.