'COVID-19 and Crime, Courts' Part 3: Local family seeking justice during pandemic shutdown
ABC57 Investigates is digging deeper into the pandemic and its impact on crime and courts in a new three-part series.
In part 3, ABC57 showed one local family’s fight for justice in the middle of the pandemic shutdown.
“On the last day of Emma’s life, I think everyone described it as just a normal day, a day like any other,” Whitley County Prosecuting Attorney DJ Sigler said.
Emma Grace was a special girl that her family loved.
“She was not only physically bigger than life, but her personality was just so huge,” Emma Grace’s mother Sherry Leeman said.
That personality, cut short, at 11-months old when Emma died under the care of her babysitter.
DJ Sigler is the Prosecuting Attorney in Whitley County, just east of Kosciusko. In his 20 year career, Sigler described this case as a tough one.
“From an emotional standpoint, this one was the toughest,” Sigler said. “This one was the toughest.”
On April 12th, 2018, Courtney Kincaid was babysitting Emma Grace.
“That day I received a photo at 10:08 am of my daughter sitting up smiling and being fine and then about a half an hour later, I received a photo of my daughter laying on the ground,” Leeman recalled.
Leeman said what she saw in that photo just did not sit right with her, but what she did not know was that detectives say Emma Grace was already dead or dying in that photo.
“While they’re working on her, desperately trying to revive Emma, I look to Courtney and I said ‘Courtney, what happened?’ And she looked me dead in the eyes and says, “I don’t know, Sherry. I don’t know.’ But she knew,” Leeman said. “She knew the whole time.”
“Emma was very grumpy and teething and she could not get her to calm down,” Leeman described. “So she picked her up over her head and in Courtney’s words, she laid her down as hard as she could onto the ground. So she threw her, she threw her onto the ground, and then picked her up and shook her and then waited 40 minutes to call police.”
“One of the things in a case like this, anytime you are going to accuse somebody of killing an infant—which is what happened here—you better have facts straight,” Sigler said.
That means two years of investigating to make sure the facts, science and medicine all checked out. Then, the pandemic hit.
“Once you find out you’re not going to have a live person in the courtroom, how do you communicate with the jury as effectively as you need to,” Sigler said. “I spent a lot of time soliciting opinions from people who weren’t lawyers or prosecutors, because I wanted to get a sense from them what they expected to see, what they’re expectation was.”
What he found was that universally people did not have a serious problem with hearing from professional witnesses, such as a surgeon, coming in to talk virtually.
“One of the best parts about it for me was I was able to pull in a wide variety of experts from distant locations,” Sigler said.
And so began the five day jury trial on July 27th—one of the first live streamed jury trials in the Hoosier state.
“So we were very lucky that we were even still on the docket to have a jury trial,” Leeman said.
Jurors, sitting socially distanced and masked up the whole time. With COVID-19 protocols, however, that meant loved ones were not allowed inside the courtroom.
“The first day was the biggest challenge and my biggest concern was that the jury wouldn’t get the organic feel,” Leeman recalled.
No gasps. No tears. No sniffles. Just silence.
On top of that, the Leeman family wanted to be in that room, confronting the woman who investigators say let their baby die under her watch.
“I wanted her to have to look at us and see the hurt and the anger and the emotions on our face,” Leeman said. “So we really felt like she was getting the advantage when we weren’t allowed to be in the courtroom. It was very heart breaking.”
“The biggest concern for us around here was making sure the family was aware all the time what the status of the case was and particularly in sentencing,” Sigler said.
The Leeman family took matters into their own hands and rented a facility just a few miles away to be able to tune in with family and friends.
“A lot of times what I would hear from Nick and Sherry was ‘we cannot hear you, we cannot hear you,” Sigler said.
That concern, carrying all the up until the verdict.
“We were trying to read body language,” Leeman recalled. “We’re trying to kind of see what is about to happen. This could change our entire life right now, what is about to happen.”
The family, unable to hear the very moment they had been waiting for, for two years.
“It was an emotional time,” Leeman described. It was the misplacement of two microphones. And a not so great updated system because they weren’t prepared to have to live stream trials when they bought this system.”
In just four hours, Courtney Kincaid, the unlicensed babysitter, found guilty on all three charges—aggravated battery and the neglect of a dependent resulting in death—putting her behind bars for 30 years.
Despite the risks of a virtual jury trial, the process went well for this case, according to Sigler.
“It was certainly good for this case and I’m actually thankful that we got to do it the way we did it,” Sigler said.
That answer, though, would not have always been the same.
“If you’d asked me two years ago, my response would have been under no circumstances would I have wanted witnesses to appear via any other means than in person,” Sigler said. “And the reason for that is because of the emotional impact of testimony face to face, is so much different than at least my view was back then.”
With thousands of eyes on the Whitley County Circuit Courtroom, the story of Emma Grace and her impact, surprisingly, was not lost, according to Sigler.
“It just seems so over,” Leeman recalled. “And we weren’t ready for it to be over.”
Emma Grace leaving her mark in more ways than just one.
“When somebody dies, it just seems like the machines get shut off,” Leeman said. “You get the flatline and then you go home, empty handed. You have a funeral. You grieve and you just move on and we just weren’t ready to just let her be done. And as desperate as we were for anything that could have possible saved Emma Grace’s life, anything at all that could have saved her, we would have wanted it. So we just kind of thought there were parents with their faces in their hands crying, begging for a miracle. They didn’t want our daughter to die. They just wanted something to save their children. Nothing was going to stop our tears that night. Nothing was going to bring her back. Nothing was going to save her, but we could provide that for other parents.”
And so they did, saving three lives.
That is where Aislin from Delaware and Deacon from North Carolina come in. Aislin has Emma Grace’s heart and Deacon has her liver.
“He wasn’t supposed to make it very long at all, but he did,” Leeman said. “So Emma was killed seven days before her first birthday, but she still has her first birthday through both of those children, and she still had another Christmas and she will go to first grade and she will go to high school and get married and have kids. Somehow she will through those babies.”
Not all courts are comfortable live streaming jury trials for a number of reasons, including the potential fear of influencing the jury and ending up in a mistrial.
Looking into the future, Sigler believes that we will find that lower level offenses, misdemeanors and low-level felonies might simply just be handled remotely across the board. The challenge there is making sure every facility is up to par with one another; a decision that will ultimately take a lot of input, according to Sigler.
As for the Leeman family, they are keeping Emma Grace’s story alive, advocating for organ donation and being the helping hand for other families who need it the most.
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