The trial of a Tucson woman accused of scalding her daughter began Wednesday with prosecutors saying the injuries were intentional but the defense contending otherwise.
Samantha Osteraas was arrested in January 2017 in connection with the December 2016 incident, in which the daughter, who had been adopted by Osteraas and her husband, suffered third-degree burns over most of her body.
Osteraas is charged with two felony counts of child abuse, one for the girl’s injuries and one for failing, authorities say, to seek help for the child in a reasonable time.
Deputy Pima County Attorney Alan Goodwin told the jury of 11 women and three men — 12 jurors and two alternates — that the evidence likely won’t explain why Osteraas intentionally burned her daughter, but that it will prove she committed the act and failed to call 911 for several hours afterward.
The girl, who was 5 at the time of the incident, spent four months in a hospital after the scalding, undergoing “surgery after surgery after surgery” for skin removal and grafts. She also had to have all 10 toes amputated as a result of her injuries, Goodwin told the jury.
Goodwin outlined the prosecution’s case, detailing the law enforcement officers, paramedics and doctors who will be called to the stand.
Doctors who treated the girl say that at least one hour and up to five hours passed between the time she was burned in a bathtub and the time Osteraas called 911, Goodwin told the jury, adding that the condition of the girl’s skin and organs upon her arrival at the hospital would prove as much.
“When she got there, she was literally on death’s door,” Goodwin said.
Osteraas’ lawyer, Jeffrey Rogers, told the jury that while the child’s injuries were indeed horrific, that didn’t make what happened a crime.
“I’ve been doing this 25 years, I’ve seen some pretty horrific stuff. This is the worst I’ve seen. It’s heart-wrenching,” Rogers told the jury. “Because this child suffered all this pain ... that doesn’t mean that this is a crime.”
Rogers walked the jurors through Osteraas’ schedule the day of the incident, as she cared for as many as six children after her husband went to work at 1 p.m.
At 3:30 p.m., two of the children, whom Osteraas was baby-sitting for a friend, went home to their parents, leaving her alone with the 5-year-old girl and her three biological children, ranging in ages from 1 to 5.
Rogers told the jury they’d hear from Osteraas’ friends and husband, and the defendant herself, about what happened that night. He said she put her daughter in the bathtub at about 7:30 p.m. and returned 10 minutes later to find her slumped over the tub and semiconscious.
He said Osteraas was hysterical after finding her daughter and her first thought was to reach out to a neighbor who works as a paramedic to help. After 20 minutes worth of phone calls to friends and her husband, Osteraas eventually called 911 at 8:04 p.m., Rogers said.
“While the state would like to focus on the horrors ... the horrific injuries to this girl, the focus of this case needs to be on what happened and how it happened,” Rogers said. “Samantha blames herself for this, of course she does. But she did not intentionally or knowingly do anything of the sort.”
Detective Jeremy Butcher, the first responder to the scene, took the stand, testifying that he arrived at the house within minutes of getting the call because he lived in the neighborhood.
During opening statements, Goodwin called what Butcher saw when he entered the home “an image ... an experience that’s absolutely seared in his mind and seared in his memory forever.”
Deputy Pima County Attorney Dawn Aspacher had Butcher tell the jury what he saw and heard at the home, starting with a bloody smear on the front door.
Butcher said Osteraas was distraught as he walked to the master bedroom, where he found the child on the floor, her body a “dark-reddish and almost purplish hue.”
The child’s lower half was covered with a towel and a red stain was visible on the floor underneath her. The child wasn’t speaking or crying, but was “basically just staring straight up,” Butcher told the jury.
One juror wiped his eyes while Butcher recounted how he stayed with the girl until paramedics arrived. While her breathing was labored, he said, at one point she reached up towards the star-shaped badge pinned to his uniform shirt.
After the girl was taken to the hospital, Butcher and other deputies searched the home, finding what later turned out to be chunks of skin in several locations throughout the house, including the bathroom in which the child was bathed.
During Butcher’s testimony, Aspacher projected photos of the girl before she was taken to the hospital on one of the courtroom walls, the girl’s beet-red skin eliciting gasps from the gallery.
Osteraas cried quietly throughout much of the opening statements and Butcher’s testimony, casting her eyes away from the projector screen as the jury viewed photos of her daughter’s injuries.
Butcher’s testimony ended with a photo of a large chunk of skin next to the bathtub’s drain. Several jurors stared up at the screen even after the courtroom lights had been turned on and the image was no longer visible.
The trial is set to resume at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Pima County Superior Court before Judge James Marner.