The attorney for the woman accused of killing her twin babies by leaving them unattended in a hot car blamed the deaths on a boyfriend at a court hearing Tuesday, claiming that he coaxed her into taking a nap by promising to watch after them.
Deputy Public Defender Dennis P. O'Connell did not dispute the prosecutor's contention that the 3-month-old children of Beverly Jean Ernst probably were left alone in the car for at least five hours--between 7 a.m. and noon--on July 20. During that time she was inside a nearby Garden Grove supply store, sleeping on the boyfriend's fold-out couch, according to testimony at her preliminary hearing in West Orange County Municipal Court in Westminster.
"It appears from the evidence that's what happened," O'Connell said Tuesday. "But she certainly had no intention of sleeping that long, and she certainly didn't think her babies were being left unattended."
The 25-year-old mother is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of child endangerment. Authorities say the temperature inside the car, which had just one window cracked an inch, could have risen to 120 degrees.
Ernst's version of what happened on that hot July day was revealed for the first time in court Tuesday, when O'Connell cross-examined the boyfriend, Scott Morrow.
But Morrow, who testified Monday that Ernst was asleep while the twins were in the car, said Tuesday that once they realized what happened they both agreed that their "story" would be that she had been inside the store only an hour.
Morrow said he suggested to her that "we get our stories straight," but only after she cried out her fear that she was going to jail for what happened.
Accused by prosecutors of having a "selective memory" about events that day, Morrow stumbled over his answers just as much when questioned by the defense.
When O'Connell asked Morrow whether he told Ernst he would watch the children if she would take a nap, Morrow said no. Later, asked virtually the same question, he said he couldn't remember. Then, questioned later again on the same subject, Morrow said he had a vague recollection of checking on the babies once right before Ernst woke up.
On Monday, Morrow testified that he and Ernst and another friend went to a coffee shop in Anaheim about 3:30 a.m. and that Ernst took the twins in with them. He and Ernst returned to the janitorial supply store, where Morrow lived in a back room, about 7 a.m., Morrow said.
Beyond that, Morrow said, his memory was hazy. He said he remembered going straight to bed but did not remember if he was alone or with Ernst. He said he woke up when the store's owner handed him a soft drink and in a few minutes noticed Ernst in bed. He could not remember if she was asleep. But both Monday and Tuesday, Morrow said her first words were essentially: "Why did I let her sleep so long, and why didn't I wake her up?"
Morrow still insisted Tuesday that he did not know how long the twins were left unattended.
O'Connell refuses to say whether his client admits leaving the twins in the car from 7 a.m. to noon while she napped inside the store.
During his two days of testimony, Morrow said he couldn't remember in response to most questions asked by Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade that could incriminate Ernst.
But when O'Connell took over the questioning and began accusing Morrow, he answered that it was Ernst's habit to "blame everyone else for her problems."
Morrow was arrested last week at his mother's home in Reno, Nev., where he admitted that he had fled in an attempt to avoid testifying. West Municipal Court Judge Dan C. Dutcher ordered him released from custody Tuesday after Morrow agreed to make himself available when needed.
O'Connell said later that he could not understand why Ernst is facing charges.
"You could send her to jail for 100 years, and you couldn't punish her anymore than she's punished herself," O'Connell said. "Those babies were all she had in life. They meant everything to her."
Ernst is divorced and has two older children who live with her ex-husband's family. She does not live with the twins' father, whose name has not been revealed. Until last December, she lived with her mother in Anaheim.
Ernst, who is not in custody, was quiet and near tears throughout Tuesday's hearing.