Beverly Jean Ernst, in tears and racked with grief, testified Thursday that she felt responsible for the deaths of her twin infants, who were left unattended for five hours in her car last summer while she and her boyfriend slept in a nearby air-conditioned room.
Earlier in the trial, Ernst's attorney told jurors that the boyfriend, Scott Morrow, had talked her into taking a quick nap with a promise that he would watch the 3-month-old infants but then fell asleep himself.
But Ernst conceded on cross-examination Thursday that Morrow had agreed only to "listen" for any trouble from the car while she slept. She repeated several times that when she left the babies in the car she planned to be inside the building with Morrow only 15 minutes and never meant to fall asleep.
Ernst, 26, of Anaheim, is on trial in Orange County Superior Court on two counts of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of felony child endangerment. Her twins, Adam and Ashley, were found dead in the car shortly after noon on July 20, 1986. Autopsies showed that they died from the heat no later than 10:30 a.m.
"Do you blame Scott Morrow?" Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade asked Ernst Thursday.
"I don't blame anyone," Ernst said, speaking so softly that some jurors appeared to strain to hear her.
"Did you feel responsible?" Wade asked her at another point.
"Of course I was responsible," she said. "I'm their mother."
At the time of the twins' death, Ernst was virtually without a home. She had been forced out of her mother's home and then had been forced by the landlord to leave a house she had shared with friends.
She had gone to a supply shop on Euclid Avenue in Garden Grove about 3 a.m. the day the twins died. From there she and Morrow went to a coffee shop with a friend, where they stayed nearly four hours, accompanied by the twins.
Then Ernst and Morrow returned to the shop shortly after 7 a.m. According to testimony from both, he then invited her in, and the twins remained in their car seats.
Morrow denied in court that he promised to watch the infants.
Ernst's version on Thursday was that she told him: "Maybe I'll lay down for a moment. Will you listen for the kids?"
She said he answered: "OK, don't worry about it."
Ernst also said in response to Wade's questions that at one point she asked Morrow if he would let her know if he heard the twins crying. She said he answered, "Uh-huh."
But her version did not include any other statements by Morrow that he would attend to the children so she could sleep.
"He never agreed to watch the children for you, did he?" Wade asked her.
"I asked him if he would listen for them," Ernst answered.
In a minute Wade repeated his question.
"I never asked him in direct words," she said.
Deputy Public Defender Dennis P. O'Connell later asked Ernst if she thought Morrow's agreement to listen for the twins meant that they would be all right. She answered yes.
In his opening statement to the jury, O'Connell blamed Morrow for what happened.
In response to O'Connell's questions, Ernst said she did not take the children inside because it would have taken more time to unstrap them from their car seats than she intended to be gone.
Ernst said repeatedly that she had only intended to "get some rest" and that, despite Morrow's urging her to take "a catnap," she never intended to fall asleep.
But she conceded under questioning by Wade that at least part of the time during the period when she asked Morrow to "listen" for the twins, he was in the same lying position on the bed that she was when she accidentally fell asleep.
Ernst was shaking during most of her four hours of testimony and said she had some memory lapses because she was deliberately trying to block what happened from her mind.
Some of her memory lapses related to damaging evidence against her in police reports. She said she did not remember telling police officers she had been inside the shop only 20 minutes, nor did she remember telling them that she had taken the twins inside with her and that it was there that they became ill.
Ernst's distress on the witness stand was apparent. She cried each time the questioning closed in on the time period when she discovered the twins lifeless in the car. She dropped her head to the witness stand when the twins' car seats were brought into the courtroom.
Then, when the questioning was over, she sprained her ankle leaving the witness stand. It caused such a renewed outburst of tears that Judge Jean H. Rheinheimer called a recess to let Ernst compose herself.
Ernst, who is free without bail, was one of just two witnesses called by O'Connell before he rested his case. The other was Leonard Wosic, owner of the supply store and Morrow's partner.
Closing arguments in the 2-week-old trial are scheduled for Monday.