An emergency room nurse who heard Chelsea Thornton admit to killing her children testified Tuesday (Aug. 8) that the Gert Town mother with a history of mental illness displayed no signs of psychosis when explaining how and why her toddlers died four hours earlier.
“She acted appropriate,” said Deanne Case, a registered nurse who triaged Thornton at the former Interim LSU Hospital on Oct. 17, 2012. “She was not acting bizarre in any way. She had a very linear thought process. She appeared to be oriented and aware of her surroundings.”
Thornton had the children’s father, Kenneth Adams, accompany her to the hospital that afternoon for treatment of abdominal pain. It was while they sat in the waiting room that Adams’ mother, Judy Andrews, called from Thornton’s Audubon Court apartment to tell Adams that she found his children Kelsey and Kendall Adams dead in Thornton’s bathtub.
Case remembered Adams being “very frantic” and yelling for help.
“He seemed very distraught,” she testified. “(Thornton) was just standing there, crying.”
Case also testified that Thornton tell hospital staff about her mental illness when she spoke with them that afternoon.
But Thornton’s mental state that day is at the crux of the 28-year-old’s bench trial before Criminal District Judge Robin Pittman. Thornton faces life imprisonment without the possibility of parole if convicted of the charges of first-degree murder. She has pleaded not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, findings that would see her acquitted or committed to a state mental hospital for treatment.
Whether by accident or design, testimony in Tuesday’s second day of trial was halted for about six minutes at one point as nurses contracted by the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office came into court to administer several medications to Thornton.
Case said supervising physician Dr. Phillip LeBas, who testified Monday, ordered Adams and Thornton separated into different hospital rooms. Then they began to question Thornton.
“I just asked her what happened,” Case recalled. “In the beginning, she really didn’t say much of anything. Then she said, ‘Miss, you just don’t know. We’re so poor. We just don’t got nothing. And I just didn’t want my kids to suffer.'”
Case said Thornton mentioned wanting to attend school to become a nursing assistant. But she said she had to drop out because she missed too many classes dealing with child-care issues and expenses related to her children’s asthma and eczema.
“She said, ‘You don’t realize, we got nothing,'” Case said. “She said, ‘I don’t want my kids to live like that. I didn’t want them to suffer.’ Dr. LeBas asked her what she did. He pressed her, and she said, ‘I drowned them.’
“She said, ‘I told each of them that I loved them before.’ Then she just kind of cried and sat there.”
Dr. Samantha Huber, chief pathologist for the Orleans Parish coroner’s office, testified earlier Tuesday that 3-year-old Kendall Adams died from a gunshot to the forehead fired from a range of about 6 inches. His 4-year-old sister Kelsey died from drowning, Huber said, with bruising and abrasions showing she struggled for her life in the bathtub.
Prosecutors Tiffany Tucker and Francesca Bridges rested the state’s case Tuesday just before 3 p.m. Defense attorney Lionel Lon Burns then began his case by attacking the work of Tyra Pruitt, the NOPD child abuse detective assigned as lead investigator into the killings.
Burns asserted that Thornton’s recorded confession to police was improperly obtained. He said detectives disregarded Thornton’s documented history of mental illness when they pressured her to answer questions at the hospital and at police headquarters.
“I don’t recall any protocols for the interrogation of a mental patient,” Pruitt said. “In her condition, I didn’t see where she displayed anything out of the ordinary. She wasn’t aggressive. She wasn’t violent toward anybody else. If she didn’t want to continue, she could have easily said that.”
But the judge was shown a second recorded interview where Thornton did ask for the interview to end. Pruitt and Detective Jounay Ross are heard acknowledging her request, but then pressing Thornton for a reason why. In her response, Thornton made another incriminating statement that she just killed her children because she was “doing what was best for my babies.”
“Is that proper New Orleans police procedure?” Burns demanded of the continued questioning.
“Yes,” Pruitt said. “It’s proper for me to know if it’s because she wants counsel or if she doesn’t want to talk to me.”
The gun that killed the young boy never was found, Pruitt said. Burns suggested through his questioning that the NOPD’s effort to find the murder weapon or explore the possibility of other suspects was lackluster because Adams’ sister is an officer on the force. Pruitt said the investigation was brief because Thornton confessed to the killing, and that she did not know Adams’ sister or involve her in the case.
Thornton’s mother Eleanor Chapman testified that her daughter’s mental illness manifested before 2010, when she was civilly committed for the first time and diagnosed as being bipolar, schizophrenic and suffering bouts of psychosis. Chapman said her daughter “would stay up for days, would write on everything, and would say she’s going to be a rapper.” Another time, she was found standing like a statue in the middle of a city street, smearing makeup on her face.
Chapman said mental illness runs in both sides of Thornton’s family, but that her daughter improved once she began taking anti-psychotic medication via injection. But she said the government denied Thornton disability benefits in 2011 “because she wasn’t sick enough,” and the family could no longer afford her medication.
“You could see the difference, as far as her going back to how she was,” Chapman said, sobbing. “I thought maybe her having her own place would help her. … Other than her sickness, she’s beautiful. When she was right, she was a great mother.”