Christopher Thomas case opens with photos of abuse

Date: 2009-05-04

Trial begins for aunt in beatings that killed boy, hurt his 2-year-old sister

By Crocker Stephenson

Perhaps in years to come, jurors will forget the horrific story they heard Monday during opening statements in the Christopher Thomas murder trial.

It is less likely they'll forget the pictures.

There were six of them, projected on a large screen left of the defendant, Crystal Keith, who slumped in her chair, her arms crossed on the defense table.

The first photograph was of 13-month-old Christopher shortly after his death on Nov. 11. His head inclines to the right, an angry red welt raised on his forehead. The second is of the back of his head, swollen from the beating police say Keith inflicted on the boy the day before.

Four were of Christopher's 2-year-old sister.

One was a photograph of her small feet, which Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams said were beaten with a wooden brush until the nails fell off, then dipped into scalding water.

Another was of her scalded right arm. Another was of the whip marks on the back of her neck.

The last showed the little girl's face.

Swollen and scarred, it was a portrait of uncomprehending hurt.

So began Keith's trial.

"This," Williams told jurors, "is going to be for most of you a horrible experience."

Keith, 24, is charged with killing Christopher, whose death galvanized an outraged citizenry to demand that the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare improve the way it monitors and protects abused and neglected children. She also is charged with torturing his sister.

Formally, she is charged with first-degree reckless homicide and child abuse causing great harm. If convicted of both counts, she faces up to 75 years in prison.
Uncle also charged

Keith and her husband, Reginald Keith, 26, are Christopher and his sister's aunt and uncle, and they were their kinship foster parents when the abuse occurred.

Reginald Keith is charged separately with child neglect resulting in bodily harm and child abuse, failure to prevent great harm. His trial is set to begin in June.

Williams outlined the abuse he said Crystal Keith meted out within weeks of the children's arrival at her home in June, placed there by the Milwaukee Bureau of Child Welfare, which paid the Keiths $215 per child per month and whose caseworkers repeatedly visited the Keiths' home to make sure the children were safe.

How could the caseworkers miss the nearly starved sister's broken arm and leg, her bruises, burns and ligature scars?

"They did not examine her," Williams said.
Disorder, depression

Defense attorney Richard Hart said he did not intend to dispute that Crystal Keith beat and tormented the children.

"It was a terrible, awful thing she did," Hart told jurors.

He said, however, that Keith suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and deep depression, and that these conditions undermined her ability to form the intent required to support her conviction.

Whatever reason the bureau might have had for placing the children in her home, Crystal Keith could not take care of them.

"She simply couldn't handle them," he said.

"She couldn't comprehend how to handle them."

Keith's trial before Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Patricia McMahon is scheduled to continue Tuesday.


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