After difficult trial, girl tries to go on with her life 16-year-old was acquitted of killing son

November 09, 1992|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

"You play the cards you're dealt. And LaTonya Crawford was not dealt a very good hand."

That's how defense attorney John L. Calhoun described the 16-year-old Dundalk girl charged with killing her 20-month-old son two days before last Christmas.

It's a painfully accurate description, according to testimony of detectives, medical examiners, social workers and school officials -- a picture of a foster child who became a mother, then a murder suspect -- a child charged as an adult.

Though a jury acquitted her on Oct. 23, LaTonya is still not free. She is a ward of the state, returned to the foster care system in which she has spent most of her young and troubled life.

The former Dundalk High School student spent most of 1992 in jail, held without bail since her arrest in January. She was accused of beating her son, Todd, to death.

The child's injuries were severe -- broken ribs, punctured liver, lacerated spleen, bruises, cuts and anal injuries.

When she first walked into the Towson courtroom for her five-day murder trial three weeks ago, the shy, diminutive and soft-spoken girl smiled like a teen-ager.

Moments later, she sobbed as a prosecutor described her son's fatal injuries.

The death was a tragic turn in the difficult life of a young girl who was born in 1975 to an alcoholic father and a mentally disturbed mother.

She became a foster child at 7, then moved from home to home for years.

When LaTonya was 11 or 12, she complained that her foster parents were abusing her. Exactly what happened to her and her complaint is unknown.

She declined to be interviewed for this story. Details of her life in foster homes remain locked in secrecy. Spokeswomen for social services departments in Baltimore City and Baltimore County said they can't talk about LaTonya's case.

Mr. Calhoun tried to subpoena the social services records, which are confidential by state law.

Both departments fought to keep the records secret. Judge John O. Hennegan reviewed them, then decided they were not relevant to the trial.

Neither Mr. Calhoun nor prosecutor Louis Carrico ever saw what happened to LaTonya while she was in the state's care.

What is known is that during the summer of 1989, she visited her father in Charlotte, N.C., and had sex with a 23-year-old stepbrother.

Three months later, back in Maryland and living with her aunt in Turners Station, she realized she was pregnant. She was barely 14.

Social services experts say young girls frequently don't know they're expecting until several months into the pregnancy because their menstrual cycles are often irregular.

During the trial, LaTonya said she didn't tell anyone she was pregnant until her eighth month -- and didn't seek pre-natal care until the ninth. Todd was born the day after she first saw a doctor.

After that, it was life as a child with a child. At Dundalk High School, she spent a year and a half playing mother and teen-ager, rising each morning between 4:30 and 5 to take two buses -- one to drop Todd off at day care, the other to get to school.

Those who knew her at school said she was a quiet, average student who often spoke lovingly about her son. Kathy Sears, the vice principal, said LaTonya was never in trouble.

Carol Merrill, who teaches Education for Responsible Parenting classes at Dundalk, said LaTonya was interested in learning about children.

Three days a week, the class worked with children at a school day-care center -- but students weren't allowed to leave their own children there. During those sessions, LaTonya showed patience and understanding, Ms. Merrill said.

"LaTonya was very eager to learn," she added. "She was always in the discussion. She was always showing sound reasoning. . . . She related to the children very well."

Dr. Michael Burke, Todd's pediatrician at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, said the young mother was "remarkable" given her circumstances.

"I was impressed at her mothering skills," said Dr. Burke. "She was clearly very young, and almost meek, but very alert and willing to learn about ways to care for her child."

But all was not perfect. Several disturbing episodes occurred in the months before she was arrested.

In June 1991, she told Baltimore County police that a family friend had raped her numerous times in the basement of her aunt's home on Jaydee Avenue in Turners Station. As police began investigating the matter, she changed her story and said she was not raped. She said she and the man had a relationship, according to police reports.

On Oct. 10, 1991, Todd was taken to Key hospital after his day-care mother noticed bruises on his head and said he was lethargic.

Doctors found nothing wrong but kept him in the hospital for a week.

A social services worker at the hospital investigated, but found no evidence that Todd's injuries resulted from abuse. They apparently occurred accidentally one morning when Todd wandered around the house in the dark, according to trial testimony.

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