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Bench trial begins in Reaves murder case

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

A Stockbridge woman on trial for allegedly killing her stepdaughter, will not face the death penalty.

A bench trial got underway Tuesday for Charlott Reaves, 43. She is charged with malice murder, two counts of felony murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children in the first degree in connection with the 2003 death of 11-year-old, Joella Reaves.

The Henry County District Attorney's Office and Reaves' defense attorney, David Wolfe, reached a joint agreement Tuesday morning to try the case in front of Superior Court Judge Wade Crumbley, instead of a jury. As a result, the state will not ask the judge to impose the death penalty, District Attorney Tommy Floyd said Tuesday.

Charlott Reaves' husband, Rodney Reaves, was convicted in February of felony murder, aggravated battery and two counts of cruelty to children in the death of Joella Reaves, his daughter. He is currently serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole in 14 years.

The state introduced more than four hours of videotaped statements made by Charlott Reaves, at Henry Police headquarters on the day Joella's body was found. In the video, Charlott Reaves told police the child had been "hurting herself" on numerous occasions, resulting in Joella being tied up in the garage.

"We had two choices," said Reaves to police. "We could either let her kill herself, or we could prevent her from doing something."

The video also chronicles repeated claims by the defendant, that she "didn't do anything" to hurt Joella and that it was Rodney Reaves' idea to tie the child up.

"I tried to give her the home she never had," said the stepmother.

Wolfe said a number of factors figured into his client's decision to opt for a bench trial. He said presenting evidence solely before Judge Crumbley, could work in the defense's favor.

"There were strategic issues that will become apparent at the conclusion of the trial, if she's convicted," said Wolfe. "It seems to me that with regard to the technical, legal issues that I believe exist in this case, having a legal scholar as the trier of fact puts us in a better position when applying the law."

If Reaves is convicted, she will likely be sentenced to life in prison, either with or without the possibility of parole.

The case centers on events which took place in November of 2003, when Joella Reaves was found dead in her home. The prosecution believes the defendant, and her husband, tied up the child in the garage of their home and beat her with weapons including a baseball bat, a wooden spoon, and an umbrella.

An autopsy of the child's body revealed that Joella Reaves suffered a lethal combination of kidney failure, an elevated heart rate and blunt force trauma. The prosecution and the defense each offered opening arguments in the case Tuesday.

Henry Assistant District Attorney Jim Wright detailed a number of injuries which police found on Joella's lifeless body. "There were cuts and abrasions on both arms ... wounds about the right shoulder area, [and] bruises to her back and buttocks," said Wright. "Both legs had abrasions, bruises and cuts."

The prosecutor said the state plans to introduce evidence indicating that Charlott Reaves was "uncomfortable" around Joella, and resented her after Rodney Reaves took custody of the child in 2002.

During opening statements in the stepmother's defense, Wolfe took issue with the nature of the charges against his client. "The indictment makes some very specific allegations, none of which we believe the state can prove to you by the evidence," said Wolfe.

Wolfe described Joella as someone who was "very well cared for" by her stepmother, despite "emotional problems" displayed by the child. He said Rodney Reaves, who was stationed aboard a U.S. Naval ship at the time of Joella's death, was "not home enough" to deal with the child's behavioral issues and depression.

The prosecution's first witness was the lead investigator in the case, Henry County Police Sgt. Rene Swanson. Swanson was visibly emotional on the stand, when describing what she called "horrific" injuries to Joella's body. She said the child's right buttock was "missing" when she saw her.

The state's case is expected to continue today, beginning with Wolfe's cross-examination of Sgt. Swanson.