Lewis found guilty of murder in daughter's death
By Dwayne Bremer
Jun 16, 2017, 20:44
Hancock County Deputy LeRoy Cospelich on Friday escorts Oren Lewis from the Hancock County Courthouse shortly after he was found guilty of the murder of his daughter Maleah "Gracie" Bush in 2013.
A Hancock County Jury on Friday took less than two hours to find Oren J. Lewis guilty of the murder of his daughter, Maleah "Gracie" Bush, who was only 23 months old when she died in August 2013.
Circuit Court Judge Larry Bourgeois sentenced Lewis to life in prison.
Prosecutors had originally sought a capital murder case with a possible death sentence, but that was changed during the trial.
"This was a very tough case for everyone involved," District Attorney Joel Smith said Friday. "I am very pleased that the verdict was able to give some justice for such a very small child. After consultation with the family, we decided to not seek the death penalty. I am very appreciative of all of the hard work by law enforcement, medical professionals, and the prosecution team who worked long and hard on this case."
"Lengthy jury selection"
The four-day trial began Tuesday and included emotional and intense testimony for the prosecution and defense alike.
Jury selection began Tuesday and took up the bulk of the court day. After several hours, a jury of ten women and four men was chosen. One male and one female were alternate jurors. None of the jurors were African-American.
Testimony began on Wednesday with a bang when the prosecution played a 911 call from Lewis on Aug. 25, 2013, stating that his child had been injured.
"My baby girl fell out the bed and hurt herself," Lewis said on the 911 call.
After hearing the tape, former Waveland Police Officer Ben Bowden took the stand.
Bowden, who was the first to arrive on scene, said when he first saw Gracie, he knew something was wrong.
"At first, I thought she was deceased," Bowden said.
Paramedic Kyle Carter testified next and said that he feared Gracie had already died.
"There was nothing I could do for her," Carter said. "She needed a trauma doctor."
Gracie was taken to Hancock Medical Center because paramedics were advised to take her to the closest hospital, Carter said.
Once she arrived, emergency room doctors determined that she needed to immediately be flown to a trauma center in New Orleans.
The courtroom was closed during some testimony when children of Oren Lewis testified.
The state called Lewis' 13-year-old step-daughter to the stand and Lewis' son, now 11, was called on Friday.
Both children, along with Lewis then-infant son, were at the Lewis home when the fatal incident occurred.
Lewis' step-daughter testified that she heard three loud "booms" and what sounded like "thunder" coming from the room where Gracie and Lewis were.
Later, the defense theorized that Lewis' step-daughter may have played a role in the tragic incident.
"An extreme amount of force"
Several medical professionals testified that Gracie suffered several significant injuries, but the worst was the blow to her head.
Mississippi State Medical Examiner Dr. Mark LaVaughn testified that in his professional opinion, Gracie died from "applied-force" or blunt force trauma to the left side of her head.
LaVaughn said he did not believe her injuries resulted from a "simple fall."
"The extent of the injuries would require an extreme amount of force," he said.
LaVaughn did not perform the autopsy on Gracie, but rather, reviewed the notes of former pathologist Dr. Paul McGarry, who died two years ago.
At one point, LaVaughn stepped down from the witnesses stand and stood in front of the jury with a mold of a skull, detailing the injuries Bush had sustained.
Earlier in the day, Louisiana physician Dr. Jamie Jackson testified that she believed Gracie was rendered unconscious by a traumatic blow which eventually led to the toddler's death two days later.
"She would have become limp or unresponsive almost immediately," she said.
After the state rested, Lewis' attorney Jim Davis asked the court to issue a direct verdict in favor of his client.
Davis said the state did not prove Lewis caused Gracie's injuries.
"This is a circumstantial case," Davis said. "It is not a direct evidence case. There are no witnesses and no confession. I think there has to be something more tying my client to the case."
Assistant District Attorney Chris Daniel countered by saying several witnesses testified that Gracie was in good health and spirits when she arrived at Lewis' home and that Lewis was the only adult home when the injury occurred.
Judge Larry Bourgeois denied the motion to issue a direct verdict.
"A sweet child"
Family and friends testified that young Gracie was "full of life" and a "sweet and loving child."
On the evening of Aug. 24, 2013, the Lohman family kept Gracie at their home while Lewis and his wife went out for the evening.
When Gracie was returned to the Lewis home about 2 p.m. Sunday, everything seemed normal and she had not suffered any injuries, Dena Lohman testified.
Lewis' wife at the time, Amanda Proulx, testified that when she left for work at about 6 p.m. on Aug. 25, she did not notice any obvious signs of injury on Gracie.
She did, however, say Gracie had suffered an injury to her hand several weeks earlier when at another family friend's home. The family friend also testified that she had "popped" Maleah on the hand.
Proulx provided text messages of her and Lewis speaking about the hand injury and another injury when she apparently fell down some steps into some rocks.
Gracie was not seen by a doctor for either of the injuries which happened about 24 days prior to the fatal event.
About 8 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2013, Proulx began receiving text messages from Lewis and the children, but not about Gracie.
"OMG (Oh my God), this boy has been crying for over an hour," Lewis wrote about his infant son.
Proulx said she tried to calm Lewis down, telling him to "take a deep breath."
"I could sense that he was getting frustrated," Proulx testified. "When we were frustrated, we leaned on each other."
Proulx said Lewis would keep the children all the time while she was at work. She said despite him getting frustrated on that particular evening, she had never seen him lose his temper with any child in their nine-year relationship.
"My story has never changed."
Lewis took the stand in his own defense and gave three hours of stoic testimony on Friday.
Lewis was adamant that he was not the person who put Bush to sleep that evening and that he found her in the shape she was in without knowing what had happened.
"My story has not changed since day one," Lewis said.
Lewis' testimony was also marked by several heated exchanges between him and Assistant District Attorney Chris Daniel.
At one point, Daniel asked Lewis if he remembered speaking with a DHS case worker on the evening of Aug. 25, 2013.
"You mean the same one that got fired for false information?" Lewis asked.
During another exchange, Daniel asked Lewis what his explanation of the events were.
"I did not know what I know now," Lewis said. "There is a whole lot more to the story than what is being allowed in this courtroom."
Bourgeois ordered that the jury ignore Lewis' spontaneous comments.
Lewis went on to say that when he found Gracie, she was lying on her back with her foot stuck in the trunk area of the bed.
Davis said those injuries were consistent with injuries to her foot and shin.
Davis theorized that Gracie may have been jumping on the bed and fell backwards.
"My client was not in the room when this happened," Davis said. "He does not know exactly what happened. All he knows is how she was when he found her."
Davis reminded the jury during closing arguments that the state had to prove Lewis committed the murder, rather than Lewis proving he was not guilty.
"You have to apply the facts to the law," Davis said. "They have the duty to prove this was not some type of accident or misfortune."
Davis floated several theories to the jury which, he said, were "reasonable" explanations.
Davis' theories included, but were not limited to, Lewis' step-daughter being somehow responsible; previous injuries to Gracie playing a role in her death; conflicting stories from witnesses who testified; and police incompetence."
Davis said that the case was solely circumstantial and that there was no evidence directly tying Lewis to the event which caused Gracie's death.
"Did they even try to figure out what exactly happened?" Davis asked. "Nobody knows what happened."
"Justice for Maleah"
Assistant District Attorney Matthew Burrell gave an emotional closing argument for the state, almost breaking into tears at one point.
Burrell said Lewis was the only adult home with the children that evening and he pointed to testimony from medical experts who said Gracie's injuries were from a serious event.
"This is the type of injuries seen in a car accident or in a fall from a two- story building," Burrell said. "They have floated at least six theories out here, but they never asked the medical professionals if any of these theories were possible. Why was that?
"Mr. Lewis wants you to believe that it's everyone else's fault. They keep talking about the murder weapon, there is your murder weapon," he said pointing at Lewis.
"Children have to play the hands they were dealt," he said. 'But they do have a voice and that is the jury. We ask you to give justice for Maleah."
The jury deliberated for about two hours before reaching its verdict on Friday. A packed courtroom of about 120 people was in attendance as the verdict was read.
Lewis, who was free on bail during trial, was taken into custody after the verdict was read and transported to the Hancock County Jail.
He has the right to appeal his conviction.