CHARLESTON — "Brooklyn Holcomb died at the hands of the one whose hands should be protecting her."
That was the thought Prosecuting Attorney Timm Boggess left with the jury as the Kanawha County panel began deliberating at the conclusion of Ronald Holcomb's murder trial. Within two hours, the jury agreed with Boggess, convicting the 36-year-old Princeton man of beating his 5-year-old daughter to death on Jan. 15, 2007.
Although he was originally charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death, the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of second-degree murder and child abuse.
As the trial began Tuesday, Boggess told the court it would not hear Brooklyn's voice but that the extensive injuries on her body would paint a picture of the trauma that killed her. When it came time for the jury to weigh the evidence and decide a verdict, he renewed a similar theme.
"It's important now that you all, as a body, are Brooklyn's voice," Boggess said.
Just after 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the jury returned. Like he did for the duration of the trial, Holcomb sat motionless at the defense table, looking straight ahead and showing no emotion. Jurors followed suit, careful not to make eye contact with anyone as they walked in. Upon sitting in the jury box, some peered at Holcomb, while others stared forward. As the verdict was read and Brooklyn's biological mother, Sue Ann Sundell, began to cry, more turned toward the gallery or kept their eyes on Holcomb.
"I'm happy with the verdict,” Sundell said, later adding that she felt peace when she heard the word "guilty."
"The jury was my daughter's voice, and her voice was heard,” she said. "Brooklyn's got justice, finally."
Though Boggess had previously urged the jury to find Holcomb guilty of first-degree murder, meaning he intentionally took Brooklyn's life, but without premeditation or deliberation, he said he wasn't disappointed with the verdict.
"I guess you feel good any time the system is given a chance to work," he said. "It's a very sad situation, but I think the jurors did a very good job of looking at all the evidence. . ."
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The trial presentations were completed at approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday, concluding three days of grueling testimony that traced Brooklyn's fatal wounds, a tumultuous two years and details of a family life Boggess said equaled torture.
Brooklyn Holcomb died at Charleston Area Medical Center Jan. 17, 2007, but medical officials testified she had actually been brain-dead for two days. Her father transported her to Princeton Community Hospital the afternoon of Jan. 15, after allegedly attempting to wake her from a nap and receiving no response. Holcomb was the only adult present inside his home with Brooklyn, a stepson and his baby daughter at the time Boggess, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash and medical officials said the injuries must have occurred.
"He's the one who killed Brooklyn," Boggess said.
Though Holcomb admitted spanking the child too hard the day she fell into a coma, he steadfastly denied striking her in the head. Instead, he told authorities he heard a noise that sounded as if the house was falling and believed Brooklyn had fallen upstairs, crashing into furniture or tumbling down a flight of stairs. Defense attorneys theorized Brooklyn may have been fatally wounded in the fall.
The physicians who treated Brooklyn, PCH's Dr. Ammar Almehmi and CAMC's Dr. Samir Agarwal, testified the child's fatal injuries included a subdural hematoma, a subarachnoid hemorrhage and extreme swelling of the brain. West Virginia's Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Zia Sabet concurred, and all three doctors agreed there was no way the wounds Brooklyn sustained were accidental.
"That was from getting her head smashed against the steps as he was shaking her," Boggess said.
According to Agarwal and Sabet, only shaking and extreme impact would account for the brain injuries, retinal hemorrhage and bleeding to both of Brooklyn's optic nerve sheaths. And, they agreed that a patient sustaining such severe wounds would exhibit symptoms of a severe brain injury within moments of the fatal blows. Based on phone calls between Holcomb and his ex-wife, Tracy Farmer, and testimony her son provided during trial, authorities told the jury Holcomb was angry because Brooklyn had spit up her breakfast and later "pooped her pants." The 7-year-old boy present at the time testified he saw Holcomb repeatedly push Brooklyn to the ground as he forced her to run up and down the steps as punishment for defecating on herself.
When Holcomb allegedly told the boy to go into another room and keep an eye on the baby he and Farmer shared, the child testified he continued to hear arguing and loud crying. The next thing he knew, the little boy testified Brooklyn laid down on a love seat and never woke up.
Throughout the trial, defense counsel Tim and Joe Harvey attempted to implicate Holcomb's former wife, Tracy Farmer, but the timeline didn't match their efforts. Farmer left for work in Bluefield at 7:30 a.m. Jan. 15, 2007, at which time, she said Brooklyn was awake and fine. She never saw Brooklyn again while the child was conscious.
Still, the defense urged the jury not to "rush to judgment" and to consider that their client "absolutely insisted he never hit her."
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The only evidence presented Thursday consisted of a tape-recorded interview between Farmer's 11-year-old daughter and Child Protect's Shiloh Woodard. The girl was not home the day Brooklyn sustained her fatal wounds, but she discussed life inside the Holcomb home, a factor the defense said was essential to consider. She recounted an atmosphere where her mother made Brooklyn eat food she spit up off the floor, both parents forced the 5-year-old to chew on soap as punishment, and Holcomb required her to run up and down the home's stairs repeatedly.
Although the girl said she and her brother received spankings on occasion, she said Brooklyn stayed in trouble nearly every day. The fights between her parents and Brooklyn were so severe the little girl said she and her brother would often flee to the floor of the house not occupied by the argument.
She described the spankings both Ronald Holcomb and Tracy Farmer handed out with a wooden board that was once part of a building block set and later was used to keep Brooklyn's bed level.
"It hurt really, really bad. It would make your butt red. It would make you scream," she said.
Later, she again told the interviewer, "It feels like you've been hurt everywhere."
In addition to spankings, the child told Woodard she remembered seeing Holcomb smack the back of Brooklyn's head and Farmer slap her in the face.
When Woodard sought more information on the corporal punishment, the child hesitated.
"I don't know. I'm not sure. I can't really tell, because I know they're in the other room," she said.
The girl, who was 9 at the time Brooklyn died, also said she saw bruises on Brooklyn's back that caused her to question what happened to her stepsister.
She said her mom told her, "Don't even ask."
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In the end, both the state and defense agreed there was little doubt Brooklyn was abused, likely by both of the adults in her home, but the state successfully argued Ronald Holcomb, a former federal prison guard, was the only one with opportunity on Jan. 15, 2007, to kill his daughter.
Likening him to a warden running Brooklyn's prison, Ash told the jury he sentenced his daughter to death.
"He could not break this little girl's will, and so, it was her body he had to break," Ash said.
Sadler ordered a presentence investigation and set Holcomb's sentencing for June 16.
Contact Tammie Toler at email@example.com.