Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Neighbors could've saved kids

        Attorneys in suits, uniformed deputies, and photographers in baggy shorts waited Monday inside a glass cage for Bridget Stovall, who never appeared. She is accused of killing her two babies.

        Court officials fiddled with microphones, testing to make sure spectators would be able to hear the proceedings in Courtroom A in the Hamilton County Justice Center. The crimes adjudicated here are wildly disparate — assault, robbery, murder — and so is the audience.

        The families of victims sit on the wood pews, along with the families of the accused. Judges have been saying for years that this is an intolerably volatile mix.

Cheap and quiet

        Somebody finally suggested just putting a protective box around those most likely to be in danger, the people immediately around the judge and the defendant. Since Nov. 27 of last year — at a cost to taxpayers of $130,000 — the proceedings have been held behind “bullet resistant” glass.

        It's relatively cheap. And quieter.

        A cluster of women seat themselves front and center of the gallery. Solemn. Mostly silent, except for the occasional whisper. A pat on the shoulder. A clasping of hands.

        Most of us in the courtroom are there to hear what will happen to the 23-year-old woman, who is in a cell in this building. She was charged Saturday with two counts of aggravated murder. Dead are 4-year-old Cariyan Stovall and 20-month-old Iyan Stovall.

        Police say the children were drowned by their mother.

Thin walls

        The defendant did not come to the courtroom. She was distraught, “psychologically unable to appear,” according to authorities. Municipal Court Judge Ralph E. Winkler set bail at $1 million — $500,000 for each child.

        The elaborate and time-tested judicial process is now in motion. Defense attorney Stephen Wenke said what all attorneys advise their clients to say to the media.

        Which is nothing.

        Eventually the coroner will tell us exactly how these babies died. There will be further conversation in the glass box. A grand jury report. More lawyer talk.

        But these dead babies and their mother did not live in a bullet-resistant, sound-resistant glass box. They lived in a busy neighborhood, in an apartment building with walls thin enough that some neighbors could hear “water running” and “screaming” and gurgling. For nine hours this went on. Police finally were called at 12:17 p.m. They arrived four minutes later.

        Almost exactly four years ago — in April of 1997 — a 3-year-old boy was left in an abandoned car. A very nosy neighbor saw his mother, seemingly confused, wandering the neighborhood alone. “Where is your baby?” she demanded to know. She would not be brushed off. People in the neighborhood started looking for the child, and someone called the police.

        Police found him shortly after that. He'd been locked in the car for 12 hours. An officer bought the boy a sausage-biscuit-and-egg sandwich and some juice on the way to Hamilton County Department of Human Services, where he was reunited with his father.

        “People don't like to hear this, but it's that village thing again,” a woman from the county said at the time. It does — it really does — take a village to raise a child. Or maybe to save one.

        And we are the village.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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