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A father's inaction to care for and protect his toddler daughter contributed to her death at the hands of her abusive mother, a jury has decided.
Daniel Vernon Williams, 37, was found guilty of manslaughter Monday in the death of his 21-month-old daughter, Kierra Elektra Star Williams — a baby girl from Peguis First Nation who died of internal bleeding due to an abdominal injury inflicted by her mother, Vanessa Bushie, on July 17, 2014.
By the time she died, Kierra was severely malnourished, her tiny body bruised and showing signs of prolonged abuse — including broken bones, a cracked skull, five missing teeth, a dislocated shoulder and an eroded nose. Even though he didn't cause those injuries, her father must have noticed them, Crown prosecutors said during closing arguments to the jury Monday in Winnipeg.
"This case was never about what Mr. Williams did to his daughter. It was always about what he didn't do," Crown attorney Daniel Chaput said.
Kierra's injuries and any sign of abuse went unnoticed by Child and Family Services officials after she was returned to her parents' care a year before she died. On her final visit to the family's trailer in Peguis (220 kilometres north of Winnipeg) about six months before Kierra died, a CFS worker saw her covered up and sleeping, and found the house to be clean and well kept.
If the authorities didn't notice her injuries, defence lawyer Greg Brodsky argued on Williams' behalf, how could her father have known? He suggested the little girl's "learned helplessness" in the face of the physical abuse she suffered from her mother kept her from crying out or making her pain known to her father.
Brodsky said Williams didn't know about Kierra's injuries until police told him about them after she died, and didn't cause her death.
Bushie pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced last summer to life in prison with no chance of parole for 14 years.
"If the child had been shot, would Daniel Williams be responsible?" Brodsky asked the jury. "No. He can't foresee that the child would be murdered."
The jury deliberated for less than four hours before reaching the guilty verdict.
Williams will be sentenced at a later date.
Jurors had the option of finding Williams not guilty of all charges, guilty of the lesser charge of failing to provide the necessaries of life or guilty of manslaughter, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sadie Bond said Monday afternoon, as she gave legal instructions to the jury. By law, as Kierra's father, Williams had a duty to make sure she was properly fed and received necessary medical care.
"Child and Family Services is not on trial here," the judge reminded jurors before they began their deliberations, dismissing an earlier suggestion from Brodsky that, in some ways, his client was standing trial along with the province's child-welfare system.
It may have been Kierra's parents' fear of CFS that led them to decide not to get medical help for her and to keep the little girl house-bound and hidden even from family, Chaput said during his closing arguments.
In Williams' statement to RCMP after Kierra died, he said he and Bushie chose not to take Kierra to a doctor for fear of losing custody of their two older children.
"We both made that decision because we didn't want to lose our other babies... and I thought she would get better," Williams told police.
"Mr. Williams wasn't faced with 'Sophie's choice,'" Chaput argued. "He didn't have to make a decision to choose two children over one. He had the means, he had the support, he had the voice to do what needed to be done and he chose not to do it. And in so doing, he failed his daughter."
(Sophie's Choice is a movie based on a 1979 novel about a woman who is forced to choose which of her two children lives and which one dies.)
The couple's two older children had been apprehended by CFS after Bushie made a domestic violence allegation against Williams. Kierra was apprehended at birth in October 2012.
All three children were returned to their parents in July 2013, and that's when Bushie's abuse of Kierra began, jurors were told. A now-retired CFS worker continued to visit the home until about six months before Kierra died, and then closed the family's case file, deciding all was well.
The day Kierra died, the other two children were taken away.
The Crown argued Williams contributed to Kierra's death both by failing to protect her from Bushie's abuse — he had shouted at Bushie to stop being so rough with Kierra on at least one occasion — and by failing to ensure the toddler received nourishment and medical treatment. His fear of losing his other children meant she was a "sacrifice," or a "cast-off," Chaput argued.
"He made a choice to do nothing," Chaput said. "It wasn't a question of if his inaction would contribute to her death. It was simply a question of when his inaction would do just that."
During the trial, a medical expert testified Kierra's malnourishment made her anemic and could have contributed to her death by making her weaker and more vulnerable to the abdominal injury she suffered the day she died. Her official cause of death was blunt-force trauma, and under cross-examination, the expert testified the little girl could have died from the abdominal injury even if she hadn't been malnourished.
During his closing remarks to the jury, Brodsky asked jurors to use their own life experiences to decide on a verdict.
"You're going to take your own experiences into that jury room, you'll talk about them, and decide if you're going to go to jail because your spouse was too rough on one of your children," he told them.
Bond later told jurors they should not think about jail time or punishment at all during their deliberations.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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Updated on Monday, February 26, 2018 at 8:28 PM CST: Updates headline
9:27 PM: final edit