Child neglect trial underway
Facing a 6-person jury, the district attorney outlined the state's case against the mother of Christian Baller followed by Baller's defense attorney's opening statements
It took most of Tuesday morning to fill the six seats in the jury box in the Melissa Baller trial. Baller, the 20-year old mother of the child who drowned a year ago in the Crooked River has been charged with child neglect.
Neglect was the focus of District Attorney Gary Williams' opening statement to the jury. Describing the house Melissa Baller, her two-year old child Christian, her mother and her mother)s boyfriend, and her two brothers lived in, Williams began to paint the picture of what he called "a mother who neglected to carefully watch her child."
Saying he expected to call about 18 witnesses, Williams recounted his version of the fateful day, April 5, 2000, when Christian, or CJ as he was known in the family, wandered off. Baller, a single mother, worked the swing shift at American Pine Moulding and after work at 2:30 a.m. that morning, picked her boy up from the baby-sitter.
The daily routine at the Baller home involved arriving home and spending some time with the boy's grandmother as she prepared for her day. Melissa's mother drove to Madras to work and before leaving would typically spend some time with her daughter and grandchild.
After the elder Baller left, Melissa and CJ went to bed, sleeping in the same bed. Obviously, Williams pointed out, the defendant was tired and at times the child would wake up before his mother. Usually he would go out into the rest of the house and play, but "at times he would even leave the house and go outside," Williams said.
One witness that Williams expected to call would testify that at least once he had observed the child outside running around. "He picked up the child and took him around the neighborhood, knocking on doors to find where the boy lived. finally finding the right door." That was six days before Christian disappeared, Williams said. The boy's mother was advised to get a lock on the door at that time.
The day before the tragedy, Christian was once again found outside. This time by the lady who came over to help arrange for a yard sale planned for the coming weekend.
"She went to wake up the defendant and said similar words, 'you have to do something about the boy getting outside.'" The next day the defendant woke up at about 1:30 in the afternoon and the house was quiet, Williams said.
The defendant looked outside and talked with neighbors but didn't find Christian. "She called the police and every police officer in town started the search which lasted three weeks."
The problem was with the way the sliding glass door of the mobile home had been secured. A piece of 2X4 lumber had been placed in the slide channel of the door and a panel placed in front of the door. The problem, Williams explained, was that those measures were inadequate.
"There was nothing but the 2X4 wedged in to stop the door from opening. But the 2X4 did not actually work, it was not wedged in. It was a visual obstruction. The paneling didn't stop the door from opening, it was just a visual barrier."
Melissa Baller, Williams said, "neglected to supervise Christian and did not take reasonable means of keeping Christian in the trailer, and that started the chain of events that led to the death of her child."
Baller's defense attorney, John Hummel, started his opening statements only to be stopped by an objection from Williams.
My client, Hummel started out saying, "has been falsely accused..." In answer to the objection, he quickly changed his comment to "has plead not guilty."
Continuing on, Hummel began to tell the jury about his client by recounting that Baller had lost her first child, a daughter, at birth. Again Williams objected. After a brief consultation with the judge, the jury was excused.
"It is up to the jury to decide the case, based on the facts," Williams explained his objection. "It would be asking too much to hear that the defendant feels real sad that her daughter died. That is not relevant to this case." Based on what Williams perceived as the defense's irregular statement, he asked that a mistrial be declared.
Hummel disagreed. "A person's background is typically shared with the jury," he said. "The state can give the background of a witness but I'm not allowed for my client's background to be brought out. The jury needs to know about my client."
Judge Thompson denied the motion for a mistrial and, once the jury was reseated, advised them to exclude the information about Baller's first child from their deliberations.
With that settled, Hummel continued his opening statements. "Melissa was generally careful and observant of Christian," he asserted. "It wasn't all fun raising a child as a single mother. The father is in prison and she was poor. Hummel explained that the lock on the door had not been fixed because, "she didn't have the money to buy a lock and she thought as it wasn't her house, she should not be responsible for fixing it. Maybe she should have but she didn't," Hummel said.
The defense attorney told the jury that he would tell the bad with the good about his client. "Melissa was not a perfect mother. CJ had gotten out twice before. First her brother had not secured the sliding door and the second time the boy had gone out the back door. She didn't think CJ was tall enough or strong enough to turn the handle. She was wrong."
Hummel said he would not disagree with the district attorney about the facts of the case, "we will disagree what the facts mean," he said. "Melissa is not a criminal, she didn't commit a crime. The evidence will show there is a (lack) of proper care, but not of a crime."
Williams told the court he would call on about a dozen witnesses and expected the case to be turned over to the four-women/two-men jury later today.