Circuit Court Judge Bill Lewis declared a mistrial on the first day of testimony in a murder trial of a toddler where the victim’s step-grandmother is accused of the crime.
Pamella Shelton of Wetumpka is the defendant accused of killing 2-year-old Rosalie Rawls. Her attorney Jennifer Holton asked for the mistrial twice, once following opening arguments and the second time during the testimony of Wetumpka Police Department investigator Josh Barfoot.
It was Barfoot’s testimony that was the issue for Holton. Barfoot responded to a question from assistant district attorney Jillian Evans about law enforcement contact with Shelton. Barfoot stated Shelton answered a few basic questions at the hospital but declined to talked to him on the phone essentially evoking her Fifth Amendment right.
The mistrial does not mean Shelton was found not guilty or the charges have been dropped.
“We of course respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision,” Chief Assistant District Attorney C.J. Robinson said after the mistrial was declared. “Mrs. Shelton was not in custody at the time and our case law supported the fact that you have to be in custody and you have to be Mirandized before invoking your Fifth Amendment privilege becomes inadmissible at trial.”
Robinson said motions will be filed to take care of the issue before Shelton is tried again, possibly as early as the next criminal trial term in November.
Holton asked for the mistrial before testimony broke for lunch last Wednesday arguing Barfoot’s testimony prejudiced the jury because Shelton had evoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Holton and the district attorney’s office argued case law with Lewis first ruling the trial could go on but with jury instructions. Lewis gave jurors instructions presented before the trial started and again following the argument they could not take the fact the defendant remained silent against her.
During a break in testimony just an hour later and outside the presence of the jury, Lewis said after reviewing case law he had no other recourse than to declare a mistrial. Barfoot’s testimony implied only Shelton, Shelton’s daughter and granddaughter were home with Rawls.
Shelton’s murder charge stems from the suspicious death of Rawls. Lewis said the Fifth Amendment privilege does not come into effect after a defendant is in custody or being informed of his or her Miranda rights, but rather is in place at all times especially when it appears an investigation has begun and suspects are noted.
The announcement shocked many family members who were confused. Assistant district attorneys gathered with them in Lewis’ courtroom explaining it all.
Medical records referenced by assistant district attorney Heather Dixon in opening statements and by Barfoot from the stand showed the toddler died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Rosalie’s mother Quneshia Rawls was the first to testify. She described her toddler daughter being full of energy from the witness stand.
“She liked to dance around and sing into silverware,” Quneshia Rawls said. “Her dad snores, so she would go around the house fake snoring. She was sassy too, quick to express her opinion. She was a happy child.”
Rosalie died in Birmingham at Children’s Hospital three days after what prosecutors described as a brutal attack on July 20, 2017.
After her testimony, Quneshia Rawls sat in the front row of Lewis’ courtroom with her husband Erra Rawls clutching a framed photograph of Rosalie taken the Friday she dropped her off at Shelton’s home.
Dixon said in her opening statement evidence would show Rosalie died of multiple skull fractures.
“This injury was not an accident,” Dixon said. “It wasn’t a fall. It was caused by Rosalie’s head being slammed on an extremely hard surface. Or Rosalie being struck by an extremely hard, flat weapon.
“It caused her skull to fracture. It caused her brain to swell. It caused her eyes to hemorrhage. It caused her death.”
Holton argued in her opening statement the State of Alabama could offer no evidence Shelton was responsible for Rosalie’s death.
“Mrs. Shelton is a grieving grandmother,” Holton said. “They can’t show you Mrs. Shelton’s Wetumpka home did anything to Rosalie Rawls. She didn’t do it. There’s not a witness they can bring forward to show she did. She suffered a loss. And now she’s on trial for that loss.”
Quneshisa said she dropped Rosalie at the Wetumpka home of her father Antonio Shelton after he convinced Quneshisa to allow Rosalie to spend the weekend iat his home. Quneshisa said she wanted Rosalie to have a relationship with her grandfather. Quneshisa said she returned to Wetumpka from Montgomery to drop off a car seat for Rosalie.
The Monday after the weekend stay Quneshia said she received a call describing a chaotic scene where she spoke to first responders trying to assess what was happening with Rosalie, who was non-responsive. EMTs drove Rosalie and Shelton to Baptist East Hospital in Montgomery where Quneshia met the ambulance.
“I saw them taking Rose out of the ambulance; she was unresponsive,” Quneshia said. “She was seizing. She was wearing her purple pajamas. I noticed she had a bruise over her eye.”
After an examination at Baptist East, Rosalie was taken to Children’s Hospital because of her fractured skull where she was kept on life support for three days never regaining consciousness.
“We were told she wasn’t going to make it,” Quneshia said on the stand while wiping tears from her eyes. “On July 20 she failed her second brain activity test. They told us there was nothing they could do. They unhooked her. Me and her father got to hold her and be with her.”