Defense witness in hot-car-death trial tells how brain can forget child

Relatives testify about death ripping apart Naramore’s life

Judge Wade Naramore, right, walks into the Garland County Courthouse with his wife Ashley Naramore Monday, August 15, 2016.

HOT SPRINGS -- About a half-hour before the negligent-homicide trial of Garland County Circuit Judge Wade Naramore began its fourth day Thursday morning, attorneys poked into plastic file crates, flipped through law books and jotted notes on yellow legal pads.

Audio-visual equipment was tested. A bailiff stacked emerald bottles of spring water on both the defense and state tables while another court officer took his place as sentry at the door.

The alternate juror in the trial -- in which Naramore is accused of causing the death of his 17-month-old son Thomas after leaving him in a hot car last summer -- walked to the jury box, set his notebook on his regular seat and disappeared through a back door of the courtroom.

Dozens of family members of Naramore and his wife, Ashley, filled the same spots on the courtroom gallery's pewlike seating as they had the previous three days. Some flipped through papers. Others adjusted square pillows they had carried from home.

Most were talking and, at times, laughing with one other.

Ashley Naramore sat quietly on the front row watching her husband, who was seated at the defense table with his forehead on top of his hands, which were crossed over a brown, leather devotional book. His eyes were closed, and he was silent.

For the first four hours of the day's testimony, expert witness David Diamond, a scientist and professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, spoke about his 12 years of research into the biology of why parents forget their children in vehicles.

As Diamond narrated a slide show and answered questions from defense attorney Erin Cassinelli, Wade Narramore kept his head up and his gaze on the charts and graphics on the screen. He occasionally picked up a pen to write notes on a pad in front of him.

Diamond pointed to a diagram of a brain and explained that when certain factors are present -- like sleep deprivation, a change in usual routine, stress or distraction -- the habit-forming part of the brain takes over, putting people on "auto pilot."

On the morning of July 24, 2015, the day Thomas died after being left for about five hours in a hot car, Wade Naramore had numerous factors working against him, Diamond said and recounted details of what Naramore had told him of the day

Naramore was sleep-deprived after getting up multiple times during the night to soothe Thomas, who was teething. The next morning his usual routine was disrupted when Ashley Naramore asked him to get Thomas up from bed and dressed for day care, a task she usually performed. He also stopped at McDonald's because he had run out of the ingredients for his usual breakfast of a banana and a protein bar.

Normally, Wade Naramore sang and said prayers in the car with Thomas on the way to day care, but on that morning the toddler fell asleep once he was in the car.

Naramore was distracted by thoughts of a particularly violent youthful offender who was set to appear in court that morning, and he was planning for his five-year wedding anniversary celebration that night.

Absent of a cue to indicate his child was in the vehicle, Diamond said, Naramore created a "false memory" at McDonald's and drove straight to work.

Diamond said Naramore "absolutely" believed he had already dropped Thomas off at day care that morning.

The idea of a parent forgetting a child in a car was initially foreign to him, Diamond said. It was when a reporter contacted him in 2004 about a dentist whose child died after being left in a hot car that Diamond began researching the biology of the phenomenon.

"It could happen to anyone," Diamond said, a belief that was reinforced in 2009 when Diamond forgot his 6-month-old grandchild in the car.

"I exited the car and had completely lost awareness of the baby in the back seat," Diamond said. Had his wife not been in the car with him, the situation could have turned tragic, he testified.

In an interview after the day's testimony, defense attorney Cassinelli said that Diamond's testimony "aptly discussed that as a society we need to help parents by raising awareness instead of criminalizing them for things people have no conscious, or blameworthy, role in causing and which are insufferably tragic."

Deputy prosecutor Thomas Young took issue with Diamond presenting his theory as fact and said he did not adequately verify information Wade Naramore had verbally given him.

"Scientists don't just take somebody's word about what happened," he said. "There's a scientific method. At least that's what I learned in school."

Dr. Jan Wright, Ashley Naramore's mother and a retired medical doctor, said that Wade Naramore was a doting father who was very active in his son's life. He was the one who took Thomas to day care the majority of the time.

He read to Thomas and played with him on the living room floor.

And two weeks before Thomas' death, Naramore was spending nearly every afternoon at the pool teaching his son to swim.

Wright said that when she got a call from Wade Naramore at 3:05 p.m. July 24, 2015, she assumed it was to tell her of a change in plans, since she was the one who usually picked up Thomas after his nap.

What she heard instead was Naramore screaming and crying in the distance, muttering the number 911.

"Wade! Wade! Come to the phone. I can't hear you."

"Wade, where are you?"

The call ended abruptly. Wright said she called her son, Spencer Wright, an emergency doctor, who rushed to the Naramore home.

Spencer Wright called his mother and told her that he was sending his father to pick her up.

"Thomas is dead, isn't he?" she asked him repeatedly.

Sobbing broke out in the courtroom -- from the gallery, from the defense table and from the jury box.

Spencer Wright testified Thursday that when he arrived at the scene, Wade Naramore was screaming and "beyond distraught."

"It's up there with one of the worst things I've ever heard," Spencer Wright said.

He and his brother-in-law had become "best friends" since the couple's marriage five years ago, Wright said. Naramore was a fun, happy-go-lucky guy who cared about people and loved his wife.

"He had an ear-to-ear smile," he said.

Wade Naramore is not the same man today, Spencer Wright said.

The day of Thomas' death, Wade and Ashley Naramore were taken to Jan Wright's home, where they, along with Wade's parents and sister and Ashley's parents and brother, stayed for two weeks.

Wade Naramore was inconsolable, both Jan Wright and Spencer Wright testified.

And the family was worried.

"He was mentally incapacitated," Spencer Wright said.

He had nightmares and would wake up screaming, Jan Wright testified. And he kept saying that he was sorry.

The family decided together to contact Naramore's family physician.

"It was textbook shock. Acute stress reaction" Spencer Wright said. "You lose perception of reality. Your overall consciousness and awareness goes away. He was functioning at about a 2-year-old's level."

Wade Naramore's doctor prescribed Valium, a powerful sedative.

"He made it through," Wright said.

"I see it in him at times. I see the hurt, and I think it hurts us all."

The past year has brought the two men even closer, Wright said.

Young, the deputy prosecutor, said in an interview after Thursday's testimony ended at about 4:30 p.m. that the trial was highly emotional and it was tough on the jury and everyone involved.

Young said he has never had a trial where so many potential jurors were "struck for cause" because the subject matter evoked such strong emotions.

"I feel sorry for the family," Young said.

Defense attorney Cassinelli said in an interview Thursday that there are "no good days in this trial."

"Goodness and happiness doesn't exist in this context," she said.

The trial will resume at 9 a.m. today at the Garland County courthouse. Cassinelli said she is unsure whether the case will be sent to the jury today.

"Our goal is to finish this up as quickly and efficiently as possible with consideration for the information we feel is important to put before the jury," she said.

Metro on 08/19/2016