Aune trial: Judge denies motion to acquit
April 27, 2023
CODY - As soon as Park County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield called his last witness to testify on the seventh day of Carolyn Aune's murder trial on Tuesday, her counsel, Elisabeth Trefonas, filed for an acquittal, saying the evidence presented was not enough to convict her client.
Trefonas told Park County District Court Judge Bobbi Overfield that Hatfield had not proved Aune intentionally or recklessly inflicted child abuse resulting in the death of 2-year-old Paisleigh Williams.
"No evidence was presented that showed Ms. Aune laid a finger on Paisleigh," Trefonas said.
Trefonas added that Hatfield had not shown anything tying Aune to Paisleigh's injuries.
Hatfield told Overfield the state had presented evidence of each element of the charges against Aune.
"There is no direct evidence at this point regarding intentional child abuse, but there is circumstantial evidence," Hatfield said, adding there was "ample evidence" showing Aune failed to seek care for a child she was responsible for.
Overfield denied Trefonas' motion, saying Aune's guilt or innocence would be decided by the jurors.
Aune and Paisleigh's father, Moshe Williams, were arrested on March 31, 2021, on aggravated child abuse charges, following Paisleigh's admission to the West Park Hospital ER on March 27. She had endured blunt force trauma on March 26 that separated her intestines, Hatfield said.
Murder charges were added after Paisleigh passed away on April 4, 2021. Aune's trial began April 17.
Key witnesses from the sixth day of trial
Hatfield called several medical personnel from Cody Regional Health, including ER Dr. John Murray and several EMTs, who testified that the average person would have noticed Paisleigh's injuries and realized she needed medical attention.
Dr. Stephen Emery, an orthopedic surgeon at CRH, also testified that as late as March 25, 2021, he saw no indication Paisleigh was afraid of her father.
On that day, Emery saw Paisleigh for a fractured clavicle. He said Paisleigh's interactions with Williams were "normal," that she didn't seem "fearful" of him and that he didn't see any bruises on her body or her head.
Dr. Robert Treece, Paisleigh's former pediatrician, testified he found no injuries on Paisleigh during their regular visits, and there was never any indication of abuse or that Paisleigh was afraid of Williams.
Child abuse expert testifies
On the seventh day of trial, Hatfield called Dr. Kathryn Wells, the head of child abuse pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. She reviewed Paisleigh's case after the 2-year-old was life-flighted to the Children's Hospital of Colorado in Denver on March 28, 2021.
Wells said when Paisleigh got to Denver, she was "gravely ill" and had no caregivers with her who could explain her medical history.
Paisleigh was also experiencing multiple complications, including being put on medication to support her blood pressure, on steroids for shock and on antibiotics to help with the infection caused by intestinal perforation, Wells said.
Her brain cells had suffered a lack of oxygen, causing her to become brain dead on April 4, at which point she was taken off life support, Wells said.
After reviewing Paisleigh's records, Wells determined she had suffered child physical abuse, and that her death was caused by a combination of three things - cardiac arrest, sepsis or infection resulting from the blunt force trauma to her abdomen, and the delay in care.
In going over the photos taken at the ER that showed bruising along Paisleigh's body, Wells said, "my worry was that she had bruising on multiple surfaces, on multiple planes of the body."
"Those are bruises that shouldn't happen from kids just being kids," she added.
Based on the bruises, Wells said Paisleigh had likely endured violent hair pulling, strikes to the ear and head region, blunt force to the abdomen and other blunt impacts along her body.
As a child abuse expert, Wells explained to jurors how child abuse can occur in a home.
If abuse is happening, and there is not an intervention, the abuse worsens 30% of the time and can result in a fatality, she said. In most cases, one child gets targeted while the other children in the home are not abused.
Earlier in the week, Wyoming Department of Family Services caseworker Stacie Sullivan testified that none of Aune's three children or Williams' son had shown signs of abuse.
"The index child is the one that gets the brunt of the violence," Wells said.
She said an unrelated caregiver in the home oftentimes can increase the risk of child abuse.
In her cross examination, Trefonas said it was Williams who had been "triggered" by social stressors that frustrated him and led to the abuse of Paisleigh.
Trefonas said those triggers included not being able to find a babysitter for his child, having to take care of a sick child and the possibility the child reminded him of his ex-wife and their divorce.
"They're all social stressors," Trefonas said. "Ideally, a caretaker would rise above that and not harm the child."
Wells told Trefonas she could not determine who had caused the injuries to Paisleigh.
Trefonas agreed, saying "You weren't there to see any of the physical abuse Paisleigh suffered. You can't tell me who did it. You can't tell me their motivation, and you can only give your best estimate on timing."
Aune's trial will continue until Friday, with Trefonas saying she will call witnesses and Aune to testify.