In the case of the death of one-year-old Kelci Lewis, an eight-year-old boy is being charged with murder. No adults were present, and the case hinges on the account of six-year-old who was also in eight-year-old’s care that night. Alabama is one of 30 states with no minimum age for criminal responsibility.
By Amanda Holpuch | The Guardian | November 15, 2015
The neat green trim on the Birmingham home matched the color of the bountiful trees hanging over its roof. There were stones plastered across the front of the residence so that children inside could imagine that they lived in a castle. A neighbor said that the sloped yard served as terrain for children to slide down on pieces of cardboard – “typical kids”, he said.
In one of the most dangerous big cities in the country, Second Avenue South is a relatively safe place during the day. But at night, a neighbor warned, “the goblins come out”.
He himself was newly out of prison and warned of neighborhood cliques who prowl the Alabama neighborhood when it is dark to defend their territory. But one night last month, the night-time horror was of a different nature and the placid-looking, green-trimmed house was the crime scene.
Between about 11.30pm on 10 October and 10.45am on 11 October, one-year-old Kelci Lewis received bruises to her body and injuries to her internal organs and was pronounced dead in the hospital at 11.07am, from blunt force trauma to the head, Birmingham police said.
One month later, police spokesman Sean Edwards announced that an eight-year-old boy was being charged with Kelci’s murder. Kelci’s mother, Katerra Lewis, and her friend had left the boy in charge of five children, all under the age of seven, while they went clubbing, Edwards said. He said that when Kelci wouldn’t stop crying, the eight-year-old beat her in attempt to make her stop.
“This is one of the most heartbreaking investigations that I have seen in over 30 years of my law enforcement career,’’ Birmingham police chief AC Roper said.
Whilst the United Nations calls on countries around the world to set a minimum age below which a child cannot be presumed to bear criminal responsibility, Alabama is one of 30 states with no minimum.
In the case of the violent death of Kelci Lewis, this raises the prospect of a boy of eight being held to account and facing evidence drawn from the testimony of a six-year-old witness.
No adults were present, but the police account relies on the testimony of a six-year-old who was also in the eight-year-old’s care that night. Police said that child’s description of the incident matched with the injuries Kelci sustained.
The dead child’s mother has been charged with manslaughter, although her lawyer Emory Anthony on Thursday disputed the police’s claim that she had left the children unsupervised.
As people wait for a fuller picture to emerge, Kelci’s family and the community have been in mourning.
She was remembered at a candlelight vigil on 20 October where people released white balloons in her honor. And less than a week after Kelci died, people gathered for a cookout at Munchies Food Store to eat $5 fish sandwiches and $3 hamburgers to raise money to help the family pay for funeral costs.
Randy Shunnarah, the owner of Munchies, grew up with Kelci’s grandmother Waynetta Callens and knows the family well. He was shocked by Kelci’s death and described her as a “happy, joyful baby”.
“It was sad to see a baby like this, pretty as she was, die like that,” Shunnarah said.
Callens told AL.com that Kelci was born two months prematurely. “She grew to be a cheerful, active little girl,’’ Callens said. “She was into everything.”
Online, family members have changed their profile pictures to show Kelci with a pink bow. Some have also posted photo collages and slideshows of the child – showing her standing in a bright, floral print dress or snuggling with her family. The family photos show an infant in lavender-colored pajamas printed with smiling bumble bees.
Writing from a rest stop in Kansas on 12 October, truck driver Christopher Harris said on Facebook that he drove and cried all night after learning about the death of his granddaughter.
“Bring her back and take me in her place,” Harris wrote. “I’ve served my purpose, but she hasn’t had a chance to serve hers, reach her full potential, or fulfill her destiny.”
Family members said at the vigil that the Second Avenue South home was not where Katerra, 26, and Kelci lived, but that they were staying there temporarily until the section 8 housing program for low-income families gave them the resources to find a home.
The temporary residence looked more secure than the address where voting records show Kelci’s mother had lived recently.
In September 2008, Lewis said, she lived on Birmingham’s 51st Street North, next to a house that has an entire side collapsed into a chain link fence. It’s just down the street from Eastside funeral home, the grand building where Kelci’s funeral services were arranged and one of the only occupied storefronts on the busy block.
More recently, according to public records, she lived in the Morton Simpson Homes housing projects before moving to a 4th Avenue South apartment in the gentrifying Avondale neighborhood.
Kelci’s mother Katerra Lewis will be tried for a reckless manslaughter charge and was released from jail on $15,000 bond. She could not be reached for comment and her lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
“I know they’re saying she left her child there without any type of adult supervision, but that’s not what she’s saying,” Anthony told the AP on Wednesday. “Right now we’re just trying to find out what they have.”