Oneida County trial underway in 2017 toddler death
Stepmother charged, defense contends blame ‘premature and wrong’
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
Oneida County District Attorney Michael Schiek wasted no time in getting to the point when he began his opening argument Monday morning in the trial of the woman he says killed Avery Edwards.
Pointing to a large photo of a smiling toddler, Schiek told the jury of seven women and eight men, “This is why we are here today. This is Avery Edwards.”
The photo, he said, was taken by the boy’s mother, Lori Edwards, prior to his scheduled visit with his biological father, Trung Tran, and stepmother, Ellen Tran March 31, 2017. Schiek contrasted the first photo with a very different one, taken by Oneida County Cpt. Terri Hook, April 14, 2017, not long before Avery was pronounced dead.
Ellen Tran, 30, is charged with first degree reckless homicide in Avery’s death. Tran told law enforcement the boy fell in the shower. The official cause of death is listed as blunt force trauma to the head. Tran was home alone with Avery and two other children when the incident occurred. She called 911, Oneida County deputies responded and the unresponsive boy was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Rhinelander and was later taken by helicopter to a hospital in Marshfield where he died.
Schiek, who said he will lay out the evidence chronologically, took the jury through the relationship between Lori Edwards, Trung Tran and Ellen Tran and the events leading to the 20-month-old’s death. The boy was with his biological mother in Virginia a majority of the time, but had scheduled visits with the Trans.
“In his 20-month life he spent 30 days of that with the defendant,” Schiek said to the jury. “Within those 30 days there were allegations of child abuse, they were unsubstantiated; within 14 days of his third visit he was dead. At the end of this trial, I will ask you to find the defendant guilty of first degree reckless homicide.”
Ellen Tran’s attorney Jonas Bednarek opened his argument by playing a recording of that 911 call from Ellen Tran. The jury listened as the operator attempted to walk Tran through rescue breathing for the boy until help arrived.
“It marks the moment when lives were changed forever,” Bednarek said. “As Mr. Schiek identified, one young soul was battling for his life, and one was just beginning the battle for hers.”
Telling the jurors they will hear from “all manner of doctors” when the prosecution presents its case, Bednarek said, “The doctors are going to try to tell you how Avery died and maybe even why he died that day. They weren’t there. They didn’t see anything, hear anything, witness anything.”
Law enforcement “focused immediately on Ellen” because she was the only adult present when Avery “collapsed,” without investigating Trung Tran, Bednarek said, who was with Avery half an hour before the 911 call was made. Bednarek also said the defense will introduce testimony about traumatic brain injury and will call two women, mothers of two of Tran’s children who will testify about Tran’s “deep dark obsession with money and the extent he would go” to avoid paying child support.
“We can say with certainty – the blame that was placed on Ellen was premature and that was wrong,” Bednarek concluded. “I’m going to ask you to deliver a verdict of not guilty.”
Trung Tran was in the courtroom Monday, and took the witness stand briefly. He refused to answer questions, repeatedly stating his Fifth Amendment right not to testify to prevent self incrimination. He was declared unavailable to testify by Oneida County Circuit Judge Patrick O’Melia.
Lori Edwards was the first witness called by the prosecution. During emotional testimony, Edwards explained photos she took of Avery when he returned from a visit with the Trans and answered questions regarding the events leading up to her son’s death. Schiek handed out copies of a lengthy text-message chain between Edwards and Ellen Tran when Avery was with Tran. In it Tran accused Edwards of “harassing her” and not being a “loving and caring mother.” The day Avery died, Edwards said, was the “worst day” of her life.
The prosecution is expected to call witnesses through Wednesday this week, and then Ellen Tran’s lawyers will begin presenting their case.
If Ellen Tran is convicted, she faces up to 40 years in prison followed by 20 years extended supervision. Trung Tran was arrested in September 2017 and is charged with child abuse, failing to prevent bodily harm and neglecting a child. If convicted of both felonies, he faces a maximum of 18 years in prison and 13 years of extended supervision.