What A.J. Saw: Mother's Fate Hinged on 7-Year-Old's Testimony

Seven-year-old accused mother of drowning sister, but could he be believed?

November 3, 2010, 11:57 AM

Dec. 3, 2010 — -- In a Florida courtroom, a life hinged on the testimony of a 7-year old boy.

A.J. Hutto was the pint-sized star witness in a tragic case that split his family and put the fate of his mother, Amanda Lewis, in his tiny hands.

The trial marked the first time A.J. had seen his mother in six months. He didn't recognize her at first. Once he did, he broke down crying.

So did Lewis.

"I kept asking my attorney to please stop," she told "20/20." "Please stop this."

Click here to watch the full story.

Lewis' and A.J.'s story began in Esto, Fla. Blink and you'll miss the town, which has a population of 361. Even people who live there say there's little to see.

Lewis, a 27-year-old single mother, lived in Esto in 2007 with her two children, A.J., then 6, and his half-sister, Adrianna, 7, in a modest home.

"It was very quiet, very calm," Lewis said. "I loved my life."

Her daughter, Lewis said, was an attention-seeker.

"She was a happy child. She was very outgoing, very hyper. ... She looked like me, she act like me, she was headstrong like me," she said. " She was like my walking shadow."

A.J. was the calmer, more relaxed child.

"He was quiet," Lewis said. "He could sit in the corner and play by his self and be content and happy."

Aug. 8, 2007, would be their last day together. A nurse's assistant at a nursing home, Lewis said she left her night shift and napped while the kids watched cartoons. The plan for the day was to shop for school supplies. The temperature exceeded 100 degrees and the kids, Lewis said, wanted to swim.

"I told them that we couldn't get in the pool today because we were getting ready to go. So they wanted to go outside and play for a few minutes while I got everything ready," she said.

Outside in the yard sat a 4-foot deep, above-ground pool. Without adult supervision, it was off limits to the kids, with the pool ladder locked in the shed.

Lewis said A.J. came back into the house.

"He said, 'Mama, Adrianna is in the pool,'" she said. "At first I thought he meant maybe she was by the pool and I said, "OK, well, tell her to come in.' "

'I Knew Right Then My Baby Was Gone'

Lewis said as soon as she looked out the back door at A.J., their lives took a tragic turn.

"He was raking in the water with his hand, like he was trying to grab her ... I ran out, ran out of the house," she said. "When I got to the pool … she was face down. ... She was very purple, very blue."

Lewis said she started giving Adrianna CPR and called 911.

"Send an ambulance please. My daughter fell in the pool and she's not breathing," Lewis can be heard telling a 911 dispatcher on a recording of the call.

"Her lips are purple, what do I do? Water's just coming out of her nose," she said. "Please hurry."

CLICK HERE to see Lewis recount her story and hear her 911 call.

Adrianna was airlifted to the nearest hospital. Emergency room doctor Linda Fox said she and others worked on the girl for more than an hour and were able to regain a pulse, but it didn't last. She was pronounced dead at 5:05 p.m.

When a doctor told Lewis her daughter had died, she said, she was sick to her stomach.

"I kissed her, I hugged her," she said. "I touched her. Because I knew that it would be the last time, the last time I'd see her. I knew right then my baby was gone.

'Mama Dunked My Sister'

"And I really, really wished at that moment that I could trade places with her."

At first, authorities believed Adrianna's death was an accident.

"She went in over the side of that pool, leaned too far," said Fire Chief Charles Corcoran, who was the first to respond to Lewis' 911 call. "She went down into the water and hit her head."

Holmes County Sheriff's Office Lt. Michael Raley, one of the first investigators at the scene, said there were "no indicators of foul play, no -- nothing of that. It was just, you know, a child playing in the pool drowned."

But within hours, the police had news that would shatter their theories of what happened. The sole eyewitness, brother A.J., had a different story.

As seen in a videotaped interview, A.J. told police, "Mama dunked my sister."

He described his mother in a fit of anger, incensed after Adrianna sprayed glass cleanser in the house.

"She done some stuff that she ain't suppose so my mama got mad, so she throwed her in the pool," he said.

His mother, he said, repeatedly dunked Adrianna, drowning her.

In an interview later that night with a trained child protection team officer, he repeated his story.

But A.J.'s accounts got confusing at times. He claimed his mother sent Adrianna to a local park and then followed her there in a car, dunking her before and after the park trip. At one point, he said he hadn't actually see the crime.

Despite the holes in A.J.'s story, police launched an investigation of his mother. They soon discovered a troubled relationship between Lewis and her daughter.

A habitual bed-wetter, Adrianna was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: She even spent a week at a behavioral center. Lewis admitted it was a daily struggle.

Lewis also admitted she had trouble bonding with Adrianna. As part of the National Guard, when Adrianna was 6 months old, Lewis was called for duty. She left Adrianna in the care of her family for months.

But Lewis said her affection for Adrianna developed over time.

"I wanted to protect her and keep harm away from her," she said.

But alarm bells went off for investigators the instant they searched Lewis' home. It smelled of urine and the children's rooms were barren, devoid of toys.

Lewis said she had recently taken away the children's toys to discipline them for not cleaning their rooms. (CLICK HERE for photos of the children's room, the pool and more.) They would have probably gotten them back, she said, within a week. In the meantime, she said, the toys were stored in a shed.

But in photos police took of the shed, there were no toys to be seen.

Lewis' demeanor at the hospital represented another red flag for police.

"When I asked her if she had any questions after I described her daughter's condition, she asked me where the vending machine was," ER doctor Fox said.

When Fox told her Adrianna had died, "I didn't see tears, I saw just no emotion," she said. "You know, you tell a mother their 7-year-old daughter died, and you expect some reaction."

Family members said Lewis' reaction was merely a reflection of her steely personality. Her lawyer, Walter Smith, said his client's reaction to the drowning and her 911 call were the most telling.

"She was hysterical. She actually threw up," he said. "Now, how does somebody turn on a switch like that? ... I mean, she would have to be Meryl Streep to pull that off."

Could A.J. Be Believed?

Lewis passed a polygraph test, but police were still convinced she drowned her daughter.

"They had already concluded she was guilty," Smith said. " They believed that they had an eyewitness who described his mother drowning his sister.

"But, I think, in my humble opinion," he said, "you can get a 6-year-old to agree with just about anything."

Dr. Stephen Ceci, an expert in children's testimony who reviewed A.J.'s case for "20/20," described the police interview of A.J. as "highly insufficient."

He said extra care is required to interview kids, especially ones like A.J., whom he described as developmentally delayed. He displayed the behavior of a typical 4-and-a-half year old child, Ceci said of the then 6-year-old boy.

In his Cornell lab, Ceci's experiments show that children can be manipulated over time into making outrageous -- and untrue -- statements.

In one test, children are told a rabbit was at their school. They never saw it, although they claimed they had.

"We've had children say things about going up in the Eiffel Tower and releasing balloons. ... They really are convincing," Ceci said.

He said that when A.J. repeated his story to a trained interviewer later that night, he couldn't have fabricated such a detailed, gruesome story without help if he weren't telling the truth. An adult would have needed to coach A.J., he said, after the drowning before he met with police.

Some of Lewis' family members and Lewis herself are convinced that's exactly what happened. Their suspicion centers on Charles Burns, A.J.'s step-grandfather.

Burns arrived at the scene of the drowning 30 minutes after it happened. A.J., who called him "Pa Chuck," made a beeline for him. Burns spent 15 minutes alone with A.J., driving him to his home.

Lewis' mother, Brenda Burns, was married to Burns at the time. They are now divorced.

Brenda Burns said she wouldn't be surprised if her ex-husband had coached A.J.

"He just really wasn't very fond of Amanda," she said.

Charles Burns insisted that he didn't coach A.J., although conceding that he didn't like Lewis. He said he didn't like the way his stepdaughter treated her children.

"She wasn't a good mother. They were hungry all -- a lot," he said. "It might be dark before they'd ever eat."

In Esto, Burns wasn't the only one with doubts about Lewis. Dark whispers circulated about a suspicious past.

Amanda Lewis' Tragic Past

As a teenager, Lewis gave birth to a son, Alex. Brenda Burns said her daughter was a young but loving mother.

At 16 months old, Alex suddenly stopped breathing. Lewis said she had left the room while he was napping. The autopsy results indicated the baby died unexpectedly because of a seizure disorder. But now, having lost a second child, eyebrows were raised.

For prosecutor Larry Basford, it was one more red flag against Lewis.

"I call it something relevant to look at when you're looking at everything in a case," he said.

One month after the drowning, Lewis was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, facing life in prison without parole. Through her lawyer, she rejected a plea deal for a 10-year sentence.

"I didn't take that plea," she said, "because I'm not going to admit to something I didn't do."

In February, 2008, Amanda Lewis went to trial. The prosecution's star witness was A.J.

"It was hard," Lewis said, remembering how she felt when A.J. walked into the courtroom. "I knew they wouldn't let me hug him. They won't let me talk to him. And that was my baby."

The testimony began with a startling moment. A.J., whose memory would be the linchpin of the case for the prosecution, didn't recognize his own mother, who was sitting directly in front of him.

At first he told Smith, the defense lawyer, that his mother was not in the courtroom but in jail. Later, Basford, the prosecutor, pointed out Lewis to A.J., who finally recognized her.

Then the boy broke down crying.

"It was very emotional, even for me. I felt sorry for having to put him through this," Basford said.

Once A.J. regained his composure, he pointed the finger directly at his mother. He explained a drawing he had made of the crime scene showing his mother, he said, "killing my sister."

But like in his police interview, A.J. told a confusing story on the stand.

He couldn't pin down where he was during the crime. At one point, he said Adrianna drowned outside the pool. Later, he said he didn't know how Adrianna drowned. He even testified that Adrianna slipped in on her own, cleaning bugs out of the pool.

Lewis attorney Phil Patterson said A.J. was clearly an incompetent witness.

"Every time A.J. was asked what happened, he gave a different answer; every single time," he said.

But Basford said A.J. made 27 statements about the day of the drowning that were confirmed. And, he said, he wasn't the only witness to cast doubt on Lewis.

Witnesses said Adrianna had an intense fear of the water, leading Banford to question why she would go to the pool herself. Even more damaging was testimony by Lewis' co-workers that, three months before the drowning, Lewis said she wanted to kill Adrianna after the girl marked up her new car with a permanent marker.

Lewis later said she didn't mean it.

"That's a comment that everybody uses but never in my mind, ever, would I ever do that to either one of my children," she said.

But perhaps most damaging of all were the unexplained bruises found on Adrianna's forehead. Basford said they corroborate A.J.'s consistent portrayal of how Lewis drowned Adrianna.

After a four-day trial, it took the jury just two hours to make their decision.

Click here to watch the full story.

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