By Jason A. Smith
Four guilty verdicts were rendered in Henry County Superior Court Tuesday against a Stockbridge woman on trial for beating her 11-year-old stepdaughter to death.
Charlott Reaves, 43, was found guilty of two counts of felony murder, and one count each of aggravated battery and cruelty to children in the first degree in the death of Joella Reaves. She was acquitted of one count of malice murder.
Joella Reaves was found dead in her home during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2003, after reportedly suffering more than 100 bruises to her body over a four- to five-day period.
Henry County Superior Court Judge Wade Crumbley sentenced Charlott Reaves to life in prison for her role in the child's death.
The verdicts came after more than three hours of closing arguments Monday by attorneys from both sides in the case. Charlott Reaves' defense lawyer, David Wolfe, described his client as behaving in a "caring" manner toward Joella, adding that Charlott Reaves took care of the child largely by herself while her husband, Rodney Reaves, was stationed aboard a naval ship for much of the time which passed after he took custody of Joella in 2002.
Wolfe cited testimony in the trial that indicated Joella appeared "happy" and did not display any visible signs of injury while in the care of Charlott Reaves.
Wolfe also cited a report from the Lawrence Joel Army Medical Clinic, where Joella had been taken in response to behavioral issues while living with Rodney and Charlott Reaves. The report indicated Charlott Reaves was "rather strict, organized and potentially a very effective guardian" for Joella Reaves.
Wolfe attempted, during his closing arguments, to point the finger of blame for Joella's death at Rodney Reaves, her father. Wolfe said his client's husband could have caused the child's most serious injuries by dropping Joella on her head in the days before her death, or by falling on the child as they wrestled in the garage of their home.
"There's not one scintilla of evidence that Charlott Reaves struck this child ... intentionally trying to cause her death," said Wolfe. "[Her] biggest sin in the case is that she didn't do anything with regard to getting outside help. But ... that is not what she is charged with. She's charged with beating the child."
Closing for the prosecution was Henry County Assistant District Attorney Jim Wright. He referred in his remarks to the Reaves' visits to the Lawrence Joel Army Medical Clinic, arguing that Charlott Reaves made appointments at the facility because she could "no longer manage" Joella effectively.
Wright said Charlott Reaves was "tired of" her stepdaughter, and would leave her tied up in the garage for hours at a time as a form of punishment. According to the prosecutor, she later tried to justify her actions to police by saying Joella Reaves would hurt herself if she was not tied up.
"Sgt. [Joey] Smith asked her, 'What in the world were you thinking when you were doing this?'" said Wright. "This defendant said, 'We only had two choices - let her kill herself, or prevent her from doing something to herself.'"
The prosecutor said Charlott Reaves indicated active participation in causing Joella's injuries, when she told police the girl "got loose" whenever she tried to tie her up. Wright added the defendant refused to take Joella to be treated for her wounds, because she was afraid someone would think she hurt the child.
After Crumbley announced the guilty verdicts against Charlott Reaves, he imposed life sentences for the felony murder counts, and 20-year prison terms for the aggravated battery and child cruelty offenses. The sentences will be served concurrently, and Reaves will be eligible for parole in 14 years.
Henry County District Attorney Tommy Floyd said he is pleased with the judge's decision, calling it "justice" on behalf of Joella. He said he is glad for the opportunity to bring an end to a case which has sat on his desk for more than five years.
"Both of these individuals - Rodney Reaves and Charlott Reaves - were involved in the beating death of Joella Reaves, to one extent or the other," said Floyd. "For a variety of reasons, we don't know who struck what blow. We'll never know. The evidence does not show one being more culpable than the other. I think the outcome of both these cases is appropriate, and is justice."
David Wolfe said he disagrees with the judge's verdict.
"We stand by the belief that there was insufficient evidence to convict Charlott Reaves of the felony murder counts," said Wolfe. "The only mechanism by which it could have been accomplished would have been [by charging her] as a party to a crime. I do not believe the evidence demonstrated that beyond a reasonable doubt."