ABILENE, Texas - More than a year and a half after newborn Ashley Nevaeh Cate was found dead inside a trash can in a south Abilene home, her mother, Amber Craker, sat in a Taylor County courtroom in tears as pictures of her hours-old baby's mutilated corpse were shown to judge and jury.
COURT SKETCHES --> http://www.ktxs.com/629569328
Monday was the first day of Craker's trial for murder and tampering with evidence, and Craker maintains that she didn't know she was pregnant before giving birth on Jan. 18, 2016.
Ashley's body was found later that day with multiple wounds from a sharp object.
Craker and the baby's father, Damien Scott Cate, were charged within days.
Taylor County District Attorney James Hicks said during opening statements that Craker's defense would claim that, and he made a case for the six women and six men set to determine Craker's fate that she knew what she was doing when Ashley was killed.
Craker's lawyers, Trey Keith and Jeff Propst, said their strategy could be outlined in two points: that Craker's alleged confession to police may not be reliable and that Ashley's autopsy report states the cause of death is undetermined and not homicide.
Keith said he's going to do what he can to hold the state to its burden of proof.
"Ashley deserves a voice, I'm sympathetic to that," Keith said to the jury. "But I'm pretty sure at the close of this trial, you're going to be less certain about what you think happened than you are right now."
Hicks called his first witness, a charge nurse at Hendrick Medical Center who first noticed something was awry when Craker was brought in for excessive bleeding.
Craker had told hospital staff she cut herself in the pubic area, but the nurse, who asked KTXS not to use her name, said she suspected there was something else going on, so she alerted a manager and administrator, who called Abilene police.
Craker's lawyers had no questions for the nurse, and Hicks next called Dr. Preston Clay Alexander, a traveling hospitalist who provided emergency care for Craker the night she went to the hospital.
Alexander testified that he was summoned to Craker's emergency room and found heavy vaginal bleeding and positive results for a pregnancy test. Alexander got consent from Craker and performed a dilation and curettage to remove the contents of the uterus.
Alexander said Craker's parents and boyfriend brought her to the hospital by car because she had passed out, and she had blood running down her legs. Alexander said she said she had no idea she was pregnant until she was told by staff, but he said her uterus was the size of a basketball, indicative of someone who was 18 weeks pregnant.
Alexander said he confronted Craker in the recovery room after "putting the puzzle together." He said everything pointed to Craker having a full-term infant, and he wanted her to be honest and say what caused this to happen. He said she didn't tell him the truth.
"I think she's had a baby and that baby's been dumped somewhere," Alexander said to a nurse supervisor before she called police, according to his testimony. He said he didn't discuss that prospect with Craker, herself.
Hicks also asked Alexander a few other medical questions, including if Craker's vaginal tear could have been caused by a serrated knife. Alexander said it was unlikely and was most likely caused by giving birth. Alexander also answered a question about babies that may look lifeless and blue when born, saying that he has performed resuscitative efforts that save those babies.
Keith asked if Alexander had any experience with autopsy reports, to which he said he didn't. He also asked if morphine administered to patients may affect their ability to answer questions, and Alexander said, "Sure if a patient is so drowsy they can't respond to direct questions."
Hicks then asked how recent Craker's injuries were when she was checked in to the hospital. Alexander said everything pointed to Craker having a baby in the preceding two to three hours.
"That was very concerning seeing as how it hadn't been mentioned by anyone," Alexander said.
That's when police were dispatched and began searching for the child, court documents would later reveal.
Wallace McDaniel is a near 30-year member of the Abilene Police Department and has scoured through many crime scenes to collect evidence, including the high-profile murder case of Philip and Violet Walter. He got the notification at about 10:30 a.m. on Jan.18 to head to Craker's house at 441 S. 25th St.
McDaniel was called to the witness stand by Hicks, who then presented 93 photos of the crime scene to be verified. Hicks asked McDaniel if the jury should see the pictures, and he said yes.
A monitor in the courtroom flickered on and a PowerPoint slide was idling with the State of Texas' logo. Hicks began to flip through the slides, which showed the tour that police took through Craker's house when they searched for evidence.
From the outside of the house through the laundry room, through the bathroom, and into the bedroom, pictures showed the scene where Craker allegedly gave birth to the child.
Hicks asked the first thing that was immediately recognizable to McDaniel.
"We saw blood in various places," McDaniel said from the stand. The pictures backed him up, with blood spatters visible in many parts of the house.
Hicks then showed a picture of a trashcan in the bathroom that had wadded tissues and other toiletries stacked and flowing over the brim. McDaniel said he checked it as evidence because it had blood on it, so he locked it into his car while officers continued to search for the baby's body or any evidence that could lead to a location. Hicks asked McDaniel to present the trashcan to the jury, and he obliged, leaving it near the bench for the remainder of testimony.
That was the last he would think of the trash can for a few hours, unaware that he held the object of their search in his own hands.
Prosecutors continued to scroll through pictures and the motif was blood spatter. Blood spots were visible in the bathroom on the bathtub, floor, and trash can, all within feet of each other. The trail continued from the bedroom along a door, and led to the bed. McDaniel would testify that this was Craker's bedroom.
Blood spatters permeated the floor of the bed next to it, and while the mattress appeared to be clean on top, police flipped the mattress and found blood stains respective to where the stains on the floor were.
But at the foot of the bed were two objects surrounded by blood that would soon be shown to jurors: a pair of scissors and an unfolded knife.
McDaniel recalled how plumbers were called to the scene because police were working on information that the baby may have been flushed down the toilet. Craker's lawyers would later ask where he got that information, but McDaniel said he couldn't verify the source, saying it was just general discussion among detectives.
Pictures were shown of a section of pipe removed from the west side of Craker's house after an obstruction was found. Crews cut into the pipe and removed the blockage, and the contents were shown in a picture.
McDaniel testified that it was human tissue in the pipe, possibly placenta.
But that revelation also meant police were back to searching for the baby's body, McDaniel testified. And that's when he said he remembered that the trash can he had locked in his APD unit trunk was a little bit heavier than he would've expected, which he attributed to possibly being adult diapers.
He told jurors he retrieved the bathroom trash can and took it to the staging area where a tarp was set up near the house.
Items were removed in layers, and McDaniel said they found Ashley's body about a third of the way inside.
The 12 men and women and one alternate who were selected to serve in this case knew what the trial would entail before opening statement started.
But the image of a dead baby, stabbed multiple times and laying among bathroom trash was enough to draw delayed reactions throughout the courtroom. Nobody audibly gasped when the first pictures were shown on a monitor in the courtroom as McDaniel described the crime scene. But within moments, several jurors sunk their heads in their hands, and sniffles that weren't present in the courtroom beforehand suddenly became contagious among those in attendance.
We knew through court documents that police found Ashley's body in the trashcan, but the cuts to neck and chest were troubling. Hicks asked APD Sgt. Jason Haak why multiple pictures were taken of Ashley in that state.
Haak testified, "We wanted as many photos as we could to represent the way the baby looked at the time."
A picture showed her head was smaller than the palm that cupped it as she was laid in a body bag.
The defense asked Haak how he obtained the search warrant, and Haak said it was based on information provided by doctors at Hendrick Medical Center. Haak said multiple people were interviewed in the leadup to the search.
Keith asked Haak if anybody who was interviewed referred to Ashley in a derogatory or offensive way. Haak said yes, that Damien Cate had called the baby a "motherf-----."
The defense passed the witness and Hicks called Jason Sweat, one of the plumbers who went to Craker's house.
Sweat testified that he and another plumber put a camera in the pipes and that they found the placenta. He said it was pulled out by hand. Sweat received no questions from Craker's attorneys.
The remainder of the afternoon was taken by the first interview Abilene police conducted with Craker while she was still recovering in a room at Hendrick Medical Center. APD Detective Stacey Cisneros testified that he conducted three interviews with Craker, the first of which lasted about three hours.
That recording was played for jurors, and it starts with Cisneros building a rapport with Craker, asking questions about school and future travel. Craker has difficulty speaking throughout the recording, caused by a combination of an impediment and possible nervousness. She says she's a senior at Cooper High School and volunteers at Global Samaritan Resources; she says she's going to marry Cate after high school.
Cisneros asks if Craker can tell the difference between the truth and a lie, and she demonstrates that she can. She tells Cisneros, "Everybody's calling me a liar, but I'm telling the truth."
Cisneros asks if Craker was pregnant, and she says "That's what they're saying." She said she was romantically involved with Cate and that they used condoms, but acknowledged that they can fail.
Throughout the interview, Craker sticks to the narrative that she cut herself shaving, which was responsible for the blood throughout the house. However, as the interview continues, details of where she was shaving and how she cut herself became shaky.
Testimony wrapped for the day before 5 p.m. Monday, and the trial will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Testimony began Monday in the capital murder trial of Amber Craker, the Abilene woman accused of killing her newborn baby.
Police found the baby, Ashley Nevaeh Cate, in a trashcan at Craker’s home on Jan. 18, 2016. She had been stabbed multiple times over the neck and chest.
Following opening statements, a nurse from Hendrick Medical Center took the stand. She testified she called police on Jan. 18 to say "there was a baby somewhere in the community that needed to be found."
The second person to take the stand was Dr. Preston Clay Alexander. He performed surgery on Craker when she came to Hendrick with heavy vaginal bleeding.
Alexander said it was evident Craker gave birth a few hours before coming to the hospital. He also questioned Craker who told him she was unaware she was pregnant.
He said, "I think she's had a baby and the baby's been dumped somewhere."
Craker’s boyfriend, Damien Cate, is also charged with capital murder and tampering with evidence in the baby’s death. His trial is currently scheduled for next Monday, Oct. 9.
KTXS has a crew inside the courtroom and will bring you updates through the course of the trial.
12:15 P.M. UPDATE FROM THE COURTHOUSE
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