"I should not have put my hand over his face. It was not my intent to kill him. I just wanted him to go to sleep. I am so sorry."
That written statement, from 2007, was read Tuesday to a six-man, six-woman jury on the opening day of the trial of Andrea Person, a former Columbia day-care operator charged with homicide by child abuse.
In April 2007 Person confessed to Richland County Sheriff's Department investigators that she killed 1-year-old Zachary Ulengchong, according to testimony. Her statement was made public for the first time Tuesday.
In killing baby Zachary in 1998, Person showed "an extreme indifference to human life," Fifth Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese said in an opening argument on the trial's first day at the Richland County courthouse.
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Defense lawyers fought back.
"For the most part, that statement is pure fiction," Fifth Circuit Deputy Public Defender Fielding Pringle told the jury minutes later.
She said Person, 40, was the victim of psychological manipulation by highly trained police interrogators.
Police were so tricky, she said, they even got Person to write a letter of apology to baby Zachary's parents, a letter the police are using - along with her statement - at the trial.
"I ask you to be skeptical of what you see," Pringle said.
Whether the Richland County Sheriff's Department coldly tricked Person into a false confession or whether she, in fact, killed baby Zachary is the key question for the jury to decide.
Other questions include:
- In her statement, Person said she put her bare hand over Zachary's mouth and nose for about 15 to 20 seconds. Would that have been enough time to asphyxiate him?
- How much weight should be given to a statement by an experienced Richland County emergency medical technician, Mandy Fortson, the first emergency responder on the scene? Fortson testified the baby's body temperature was "cold," as if he had been dead for some time - not the short time Person's statement indicated.
- How much weight should be given to an initial coroner's report that found Zachary died of natural causes - complications of pneumonia and bronchitis?
The jury also will scrutinize other 2007 statements Person made to police:
- "I had six children that day. They were all around Zachary's age. I think that I felt a little overwhelmed by all of the children and their care."
- "If I could change things, I would. I'm tired of holding on to this. It feels good to say it to someone. ... I was wrong for what I did. I want to ask for forgiveness and move on in my life."
Person, who could testify as early as Thursday, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if found guilty.
Testimony could wind up by Thursday or Friday.
Person has been charged in two other child deaths at her facility. This is the first trial in any of the deaths. The other two cases are pending.
Under trial rules, prosecutors are forbidden to mention the other deaths.
Person was not charged with Zachary's 1998 death until 2007, when authorities investigated another child death at her facility.
On seeing a news report of that April 2007 death, emergency medical technician Fortson contacted the Sheriff's Department and told investigations about the 1998 experience with Zachary.
Pringle, Person's attorney, said Tuesday that Person did not kill Zachary.
"This was a child she loved," Pringle told the jury.
In her signed statement to sheriff's investigators, Person said Zachary had been "sick and full of cold." The baby began crying and wouldn't stop. "He was whining, and I didn't want the other children to wake up."
Then, she told police, she covered his face with her hand.
"When I took my hand off, he took a deep breath, and it appeared to me that he fell asleep."
About 20 minutes later, she testified, she returned and picked him up.
"He wasn't breathing."
Person's trial resumes today at 1 p.m.