Four members of the Los Angeles-based Ecclesia Athletic Assn., a quasi-religious group formed to shepherd children away from inner-city strife, were found guilty Friday of manslaughter in the beating death of the 8-year-old daughter of the group’s founder and spiritual leader.
After 11 hours of deliberation, the jury voted 10 to 2 to deliver the harshest verdict possible in the case, which has been a source of fascination in this small Oregon mill town for several months. Unlike California, Oregon does not require unanimous verdicts in criminal cases.
The defendants--Willie Chambers, 35; Constance Jackson, 39; Frederick Doolittle, 28, and Brian Brinson, 31--face maximum prison terms of 20 years each.
They had been accused of beating Danya Broussard to death seven month ago at a farmhouse maintained by Ecclesia. Evidence showed that the beating had been conducted in front of other children in the group after consultation by telephone with the child’s father. Testimony indicated that Eldridge Broussard Jr. thought his daughter should be punished after she stole a vegetable from another child’s plate and then bit Jackson.
“I was convinced that basically they were good people, good people who went wrong,” said juror Marilyn Simonsen, a retired nurse who voted with the majority.
Clackamas County Circuit Judge John Lowe read the verdict without comment.
As the verdict was read, Jackson began to sob. Afterward, Brinson and Chambers shook the prosecutor’s hand, and the four were led away in handcuffs. Their attorneys said the decision will be appealed.
“It’s a very emotional case involving the beating death of a child,” said defense attorney Tim Lyons. “It’s hard to be objective.”
Wanted Lesser Charge
The two jurors who voted in the minority wanted to convict on a lesser charge that would have required only five-year sentences, one of them said.
The decision marks a climactic chapter in a story that has captivated this largely white, rural county for seven months, ever since members of the mostly black group from South-Central Los Angeles arrived at a fire station here with Dayna’s battered body.
The verdicts do not, however, end Ecclesia’s legal morass in Oregon. Jackson and three other women in the group still face charges of criminal mistreatment in the alleged beatings of other Ecclesia children.
And juvenile proceedings are continuing in the cases of 53 Ecclesia children who were placed in foster care in the wake of Dayna’s death. Oregon authorities are seeking long-term, although not permanent, custody of those children, whose parents are, for the most part, sticking by Broussard.
Before coming to Oregon, the children, along with their parents, had lived for more than a decade in a converted bakery on Avalon Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles. Their life style was communal--they call themselves an extended family--with shared finances, meals and child-rearing duties.
Ecclesia’s dream of helping black children out of the ghetto through a strict regimen of religion, discipline and athletics was a persistent theme throughout the manslaughter trial, in which nine children, aged 6 to 14, were the state’s star witnesses.
In voices so tiny that prosecutor Alfred French repeatedly asked them to speak up, the children described how they gathered in the garage of their farmhouse to watch the defendants discipline Dayna--who was described as a strong-willed, stubborn child--for stealing a piece of zucchini from another child’s plate and then biting Jackson, who had tried to punish her.
The prosecution charged that Dayna was struck more than 500 times with a variety of instuments--among them a rubber hose, a braided electrical cord, a bamboo stick, a weight belt and a PVC pipe--and then draped over a window when she complained she could not breathe.
“She tried to tell Willie (Chambers) how she couldn’t breathe,” 14-year-old Joe Williams testified, “but Brian (Brinson) wouldn’t let her tell, and he kept holding her arms and her head down to the floor. . . . She said she couldn’t breathe real softly. She kept on saying it, and then Willie grabbed her and just put her out the window.”
Put Her on Floor
After the child was removed from the window, the Williams boy told the jury, the defendants placed her on the floor directly in front of him.
“She just took two last breaths, two last breaths, and her eyes rolled back, and after that, I guess Brian noticed it because he rushed over there, and he picked her up, and I just seen--I just seen them take Dayna out of the room, and that was it.”
During closing arguments and throughout the trial, defense lawyers--and Chambers and Brinson, both of whom testified--maintained that the children’s statements were exaggerated and that much of the discipline was actually theatrics, with Chambers striking the floor rather than Dayna in an attempt to frighten the other children into behaving.
The four criminal lawyers also argued that the defendants made several attempts to help Dayna, including checking her breathing and taking her to the fire station.
During the trial, the defense lawyers also introduced an independent autopsy in an effort to persuade the jury that Dayna died, not from the beating, but from being draped over the window--an act they said was intended to help the child by giving her some air.
But in his closing and rebuttal arguments before the jury Thursday, prosecutor French dismissed that theory. “Hanging that child out the window was not an act of compassion. . . ,” French said. “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what you do with a carpet. That’s not what you do with a badly injured little child.”
As to the cause of Dayna’s death, French told the jury: “Your own common sense tells you that she was beaten to death. She walked into that room of her own ability and she was carried out dead. She didn’t die of any strange disease or unknown causes. She was beat to death, and that’s all there is to it.”
Although Broussard was in Los Angeles at the time of his daughter’s death, there was testimony during the trial that he gave the defendants permission to discipline Dayna. In an unusual twist for the father of a victim, he has remained in the defendants’ camp.