Jury visits BREC park murder scene

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- State District Judge Anthony Marabella, far left,  District Attorney Hillar Moore, Jr., their staffs and law enforcement personnel walk across an open field as jurors ride in the EBR Sheriff's bus, left, in Doyle's Bayou Park on Port Hudson-Pride Road in Zachary Thursday. Jurors in the first degree murder trial of Dominque Dantoni Smith toured the site .
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- State District Judge Anthony Marabella, far left, District Attorney Hillar Moore, Jr., their staffs and law enforcement personnel walk across an open field as jurors ride in the EBR Sheriff's bus, left, in Doyle's Bayou Park on Port Hudson-Pride Road in Zachary Thursday. Jurors in the first degree murder trial of Dominque Dantoni Smith toured the site .

On a day when the jury toured the scene of a 2008 double-murder at a BREC park near Zachary, a paramedic testified Thursday that a then-4-year-old girl severely injured in the attack told him in an ambulance that a lady killed her mom and little brother in the park.

An East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy, however, testified he spoke briefly with the girl, Lindsay Paige Johnson, at the park before she was put into the ambulance on May 5, 2008, and the girl stated that it was her dad, Dominique Dantoni Smith, who cut her neck.

Smith, 31, of Wilson, is standing trial on two counts of first-degree murder in the killing of a former girlfriend, Jessica Johnson Palmer, and her 3-year-old son, Juan Palmer Jr., on May 4, 2008, at Doyle’s Bayou Park on Port Hudson-Pride Road.

Smith also is being tried on a charge of the attempted first-degree murder of Paige Johnson, who is now 9, and her then-6-month-old sister, Robbyn Palmer. Paige and Robbyn were left overnight in the park for dead.

Smith and Jessica Palmer had a child — Paige — together. Smith and Palmer were both married at the time of the attacks, but not to each other. Smith had three other children with his wife.

Trendall Lashel Matthews, who testified earlier at the trial that Smith was her boyfriend at the time of the attacks, pleaded guilty to the same murder and attempted murder charges in 2011 in exchange for two sentences of life in prison. She had faced a possible death sentence.

The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office earlier this month decided not to continue seeking the death penalty against Smith after Paige’s family expressed concern over the child’s well-being.

Assistant District Attorney Darwin Miller said the state expects to rest its case Friday.

BREC foreman Tommy Rome Jr. testified Thursday he was cutting the grass at the park on May 5, 2008, when a co-worker alerted him to Jessica Palmer’s body sometime around noon.

As they returned to the parking area, Rome said, he discovered two children lying face-down in the grass. Rome said Paige had a “large cut on her neck.”

Gary Morris, one of the first sheriff’s deputies to arrive on the scene, testified he asked Paige who had hurt her.

“She said her dad,” Morris said.

The deputy acknowledged under questioning from Jason Waltman, one of Smith’s attorneys, that his report does not include that remark — only that the girl said her dad left her at the park.

East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services paramedic George Steffonson testified that while he was tending to Paige and Robbyn as they were being transported to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, he asked Paige what had happened.

“Her reply to me was a lady had killed her brother,” Steffonson said. “The child had also mentioned that the woman killed her mother.”

Steffonson, who said Paige indicated she had seen the lady before, testified Paige did not mention her dad.

James Freeman, who works in the Sheriff’s Office’s crime scene division, testified that two bags — one containing clothing and the other holding a steering wheel cover, seat covers and floor mats — were found where Michelle Minor, who was living with Smith in May 2008, told detectives they could find the items. Minor testified previously that Smith asked her to dispose of the items, so she tossed them into a ditch.

Sheriff’s Cpl. Roberta Hotard testified she located “blood pools” in several areas of the crime scene, as well as a pair of baby shoes and a child’s flip-flop.

Hotard also said she was at the park the morning of May 6, 2008, when detectives brought a handcuffed Smith to the park.

“He directed detectives to locations. He led them,” she said.

Hotard said Smith also led detectives down a gravel road to a burn pile containing “fresh ash.” Prosecutors contend Smith and Matthews, 25, of Jackson, burned the bloody clothes they were wearing when they left the park.

Hotard also testified Smith took detectives to another location off Brown Road where an aluminum baseball bat was found wrapped in plastic, and blades were found in a plastic bag.

“It looks like it’s been in a fire,” Hotard said when she displayed the bat for the jury.

Prosecutors say the bat was used in the attacks.

It was Hotard who placed eight evidence markers at the park Thursday so the jury could tour the crime scene. Two of the markers were where Jessica Palmer’s and Juan Palmer Jr.’s bodies were located.

The jurors were taken to the park entrance in a sheriff’s Special Operations bus. They exited the bus after it drove through a field closer to the actual crime scene. Smith was driven to the site in a sheriff’s SUV but did not get out. State District Judge Tony Marabella, District Attorney Hillar Moore III, Miller, Smith’s attorneys, Hotard and other people connected to the case walked behind the jury bus toward the crime scene.

Matthews testified Tuesday that Smith fatally slit the throats of Jessica Palmer and Juan Palmer Jr. and cut the throat of Paige.

Matthews said she used her feet to hold Jessica Palmer down while Smith cut her, and that she held onto the boy while Smith cut him. Matthews denied hitting Jessica Palmer with a baseball bat, testifying it was Smith who wielded the bat.

Sheriff’s detectives have testified previously at pretrial hearings that Smith implicated himself and Matthews in the attacks. Smith said he and Palmer went for a walk, during which he grabbed her hands while Matthews attacked her, according to an arrest affidavit.