A young girl who survived a 2008 attack at a BREC park in which her mother and 3-year-old brother were killed would be traumatized even further if forced to testify in a courtroom at the capital murder trial of her father, a licensed counselor who has treated the girl testified Friday.
Amanda Chapoton, a registered therapist who works with families and children, said during a hearing in Dominique Dantoni Smith’s murder case that the girl — Paige Johnson, now 8 — is afraid of Smith and has indicated in counseling sessions that he is evil and belongs in hell.
Smith, 31, of Wilson, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the May 4, 2008, killing of Jessica Johnson Palmer, 23, of Baker, and Juan Palmer Jr., 3, at Doyle’s Bayou Park on Pride-Port Hudson Road. He also is charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder of two of Palmer’s children: Paige, who was 4 years old at the time, and Robbyn Palmer, who was 6 months old.
Paige, whose throat was slit in the attack, and Robbyn Palmer were left overnight in the park for dead.
Smith’s attorneys have subpoenaed Paige to testify at his trial. A trial date is expected to be selected at a Nov. 2 status conference in the case.
In response to the defense subpoena, East Baton Rouge Parish prosecutors filed a motion to allow the girl to testify from a room outside Smith’s presence. If allowed, her testimony would be video-fed into the courtroom, as it was April 2 during a hearing in the case.
State District Judge Tony Marabella said he will rule on the matter Aug. 13. The judge ruled at the April hearing that the girl is competent to testify.
Smith contends that allowing the child to testify via video would violate his constitutional right to confront his accuser.
Chapoton testified that when she met with the girl in 2008 after the attack, the child gravitated to a dollhouse and was “aggressive” when play-acting about her father.
“She would continually knock him (a male figure) off of the roof,” Chapoton said. “Any time his (Smith’s) name came up, there was more aggressive play. She would stop smiling. She would also change the subject, not wanting to go there.”
Chapoton said she re-established contact with the girl in May of this year and noticed at the first session that the child would get serious whenever the topic of a courtroom came up. Chapoton said the issue was discussed further at the next session.
“She brought up not wanting to see her dad,” Chapoton said, adding that the girl also pretended to pick up a judge’s gavel and said, “I’ll take that thing the judge has and hit him (Smith).”
Chapoton said the girl drew a picture and put the words “Heaven” on the left side and “Hail” (she pronounced it as “Hell”) on the right, with a line separating the two sides.
On the left side, she listed her deceased mother and brother, Chapoton, and herself, Chapoton said.
On the right side, she wrote the word “evil” and drew two stick figures, one for her dad and the other for his attorney, Chapoton added.
When prosecutor Darwin Miller asked if putting the girl in the same courtroom as Smith would traumatize the child, Chapoton replied, “I believe it’s a high probability that it would cause regression.”
“The last thing I want to do is traumatize a young child,” Daryl Gold, one of Smith’s attorneys, told Chapoton.
Gold, however, pointed out that the girl told police and others in 2008 that a “lady” cut her mother and brother.
The child also picked the woman out of a lineup, Gold said.
Smith’s girlfriend, Trendall Lashel Matthews, 25, of Jackson, pleaded guilty in the case last year to two counts each of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder in exchange for a sentence of life in prison.
She agreed to testify against Smith, who rejected the same offer to plead guilty in return for a life term.
Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty.
Matthews and Jessica Palmer are cousins. Smith and Palmer were once romantically involved and had a child together.
Sheriff’s detectives have testified previously that Smith implicated himself and Matthews in the attacks.
When Matthews pleaded guilty, Miller said an altercation and argument erupted involving Smith, Palmer and Matthews, and that Smith knocked Palmer to the ground and cut her throat.
While Palmer was on the ground, the prosecutor
said, Matthews used her feet to hold Palmer down while Smith continued to cut her.
Matthews also admitted she held Paige Johnson and Juan Palmer Jr. when Smith cut them, Miller said last year.