A jury of seven men and five women deliberated for about two hours and 15 minutes on Wednesday before finding Zachary Lynn Atwood guilty of capital murder in his 3-month-old stepson's 2016 death.
"I'm very grateful for the jury. They had to go through part of what I go through and feel every day," the late Mitchell Goss's mother, Michelle "Sunnie" Thomas, told the Log Cabin after learning Atwood would spend the rest of his life behind bars. "This won't bring my baby back, but it brings him and my family some peace."
Attorneys on both sides of the case warned potential jurors prior to calling witnesses to the stand the case would be "horrible" and "gruesome."
Defense attorney Lynn Plemmons in his closing statements said it wasn't fair that Mitchell was born "into a pack of meth users" and also that he believed the baby's death was an accident.
"Mitchell lived a short life and in horrible circumstances," Plemmons said shortly before 2 p.m. Wednesday as he began to point out that Atwood "was truthful" during his second round of questioning because he no longer was high on meth, referring back to much of Tuesday's testimony. A large part of Tuesday was spent watching Atwood's interrogation videos. While portions of the videos were omitted following an evening hearing before Circuit Judge Clawson Jr. regarding the references to domestic violence and alleged animal abuse, the footage showed indicated Atwood was high on meth.
In his second interview with Arkansas State Police Investigator Mike Garlington, a 29-year-old Atwood confessed it was possible Mitchell's fatal injuries were caused by him accidentally sitting on the infant.
After sitting on the baby, Atwood told authorities he said a prayer for the 3-month-old, placed him on his back in his portable crib and walked away because "he was scared of going to prison for murder over an accident."
"That sounds stupid," Plemmons admitted during closing arguments. "That stupidity may have been what caused Mitchell's death."
Before telling the police he could have injured the infant child by sitting on the 3-month-old, Atwood first blamed Thomas's mother and the then-couple's 5-year-old daughter. At one point, Garlington asked Atwood if it was possible if he stepped on the baby, which could explain the two skull fractures. Instead, the infant's father said his 5-year-old daughter had been left alone the day before while he, Thomas and Vicky Archer, who is Atwood's mother, went outside to smoke a cigarette and that she probably caused the baby's injuries.
"It's possible that Aubrey stepped on the baby. She's an 80-pound, 5-year-old girl," Atwood said as he continued fidgeting before investigator Garlington, the late Coroner Pat Moore and then-Guy Police Chief Bobby Lockard. "My little girl is a fat a** little girl."
As soon as family members heard Atwood's comment Tuesday about his then-5-year-old daughter, the crowd gasped.
The defense's accidental death theory was struck down by two expert witnesses called to the stand by deputy prosecutors John Hout and Colin Wall -- Dr. Adam Craig, who is the associate medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Lab, and Dr. Karen Farst, who is a child abuse pediatrician at the Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Craig said there was no way baby Mitchell died accidentally and that the infant's death was caused by blunt force trauma.
The injuries the 3-month-old endured included:Multiple blunt force trauma areas. A skull fracture. Cerebral hemorrhage. Cerebral contusion. Contusions on his scalp, nose, an arm and a foot. An older subdural hematoma. Retinal hemorrhages.
Mitchell's injuries, Craig said, likely were caused two to three days before the 3-month-old died.
Farst said she believed that had the family sought medical treatment when he first started showing signs of injury, baby Mitchell likely would have lived. However, Hout informed her that while Thomas, who did not have a vehicle of her own, asked Atwood about taking the baby to the hospital two days prior to his death, her then-husband told her no "because little boy's get bruises."
"With infants his age, it's highly unlikely [for him to bruise accidentally], any one bump on the head of a child this age is concerning," Farst said. "It's very uncommon to see bruises on a child of this age [unless] there is a well-described accident."
While on the stand, Farst struck down the possibility of injuries to the baby's brain being caused by Atwood sitting on the baby while the infant was on the couch, saying there would be too much cushion and that the injuries weren't consistent with such theory.
Dr. Robert Bux, an expert in forensic, clinical and forensic pathology, was the sole witness brought to the stand by the defense. Bux said the defense counsel's theory was "plausible" but that "best-case scenario, the baby died within an hour" of being sat on. Bux also sided with the defense in that it was likely several different scenarios could have caused the infant's death.
Several of the late infant's family members were present through the entirety of the three-day trial. Only once did they leave the courtroom to avoid hearing testimony — during Craig's testimony on the autopsy, which included graphic photos of the baby's injuries, including close-up shots of hemorrhaging on both sides of the infant's brain.
Branden Thomas, who is Sunnie's current husband, said he was relieved to hear Atwood will spend the rest of his life in prison.
"It's been a long two years to get here, but the two-hour wait [to find out the verdict] seemed so much longer," he told the Log Cabin as he hugged his wife outside the courtroom.
With this verdict, 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Carol Crews said she is glad to know Atwood can't hurt anyone else.
"Mr. Atwood committed an unspeakable crime against an innocent baby," she said. "I am thankful for the hard work of law enforcement, deputy prosecutors Colin Wall and John Hout and the courageous members of the jury who held the defendant accountable for his heinous crime. Mr. Atwood will now be behind bars for the rest of his life and will not be able to hurt another child."
Throughout the trial, Sunnie was criticized by the defense because she too was high on meth the day her baby died. She also got high the night before and did not sleep any in the hours leading up to her baby's death, she testified.
After admitting that Zachary, who also would give meth to a 17-year-old neighbor, would shoot her up as his mother smoked meth in the home, the 29-year-old also inject himself with meth.
Since her initial interview with investigators on June 2, 2016, Sunnie has turned her life around.
As the investigation began, her then-5-year-old daughter was placed into foster care in Lonoke County. Sunnie is now "nearing three years clean and sober" and happily married. She and Branden collectively have four children, and Branden plans to work toward adopting Aubrey now that the criminal proceedings against Atwood are over.
Sunnie said she was manipulated by Atwood for years, and truly believed he was a changed man when she moved back in with him on May 1, 2016. She soon learned "nothing was ever about me or the kids ... he only ever wanted to control me."
She knew something was off when Atwood mentioned outside her aunt's house two days after her son's death that he felt he was being framed for murder.
"He just wanted to hug me and say everything was OK ... that we could just have another baby instead," she said. "That wasn't right."
While on the stand Sunnie spoke of the last time she went to check on her son before learning he'd died. She was headed to take a shower and walked over to his portable crib. Zachary had just told her he would take care of the baby when she heard her son crying, so she believed the baby to be asleep, she testified. After her shower and as she was getting dressed, she was alerted something was wrong when she heard her 5-year-old daughter let out a "God-awful scream."
Running into the living room she was met by Archer and her young daughter who just got back from walking to the Thunderbirds Citgo, the lone gas station in Guy where Archer worked. Mitchell was "blue and felt cold" as Archer began administering CPR. Sunnie attempted to run to the neighbor's house to call authorities because Atwood "pushed" her and told her to "wait before calling" 911.
Sunnie's cousin Lesa May was one of several family members to sit by her side throughout Atwood's capital murder trial.
May said she also was pleased with the verdict and knows "this is the best we can get legally from the justice system."
Branden and Sunnie both said while standing outside the courthouse that they are forever grateful for the work Wall and Hout put into this case and seeking justice on Mitchell's behalf. The family also wanted to express gratitude toward Susan Bradshaw, who is the director of victim services at the 20th Judicial District.
In a capital murder case there are two sentencing options: life without the possibility of parole or death. Because prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, Atwood automatically received a life sentence upon the jury's verdict.