The family and supporters of 5-year-old Hartley Anderson sat quietly in the courtroom Tuesday afternoon as the trial began for the man accused of beating her to death.
The scene was markedly different from raucous earlier court proceedings. Clark County Superior Court Judge Jennifer Snider had warned those in the gallery that any outbursts could lead to a mistrial.
Opening statements in Ryan M. Burge’s murder trial began Tuesday, following 1½ days of jury selection. More than a dozen people filed into the courtroom for the start of trial.
Burge, 38, is accused of first- and second-degree murder in Hartley’s death. She suffered severe head trauma and died at a Portland hospital.
Vancouver police responded about 5 p.m. Nov. 2, 2018, to the Madison Park Apartments, where emergency responders were treating Hartley’s injuries.
The girl’s mother, Nataasha Luchau, called 911 and said that Hartley “reportedly threw herself into a wall and was unresponsive,” according to court records.
Burge, Luchau’s live-in boyfriend at the time, had been babysitting Hartley all day while Luchau worked and her sons were at school.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor James Smith asked jurors to picture a little girl with her whole life ahead of her, alone in an apartment with Burge. While in his care, she suffered more than 20 blows to her head and face. Her body was covered in bruises and lacerations — injuries no child should suffer, Smith said.
As he spoke, jurors looked at a photo of Hartley dressed as a vampire butterfly for Halloween. The picture was taken days before her death.
Burge’s defense attorney, Renee Alsept, urged the jury not to view the case with emotion.
She argued that “not everything is always as it appears,” and said Burge did not murder Hartley; she hurt herself.
The defense maintains that Hartley’s injuries were self-inflicted — the product of a violent temper tantrum. Smith argues they were caused by Burge’s reaction to the girl’s tantrum.
Burge had told investigators that Hartley smashed her head into the wooden frame of a bed and into a wall, Smith said. Investigators found multiple impacts in the drywall inside the apartment, and strands of her hair were collected from some of the impact sites.
Alsept said Hartley frequently threw tantrums, and her mother had sought medical care for her on multiple occasions over the years, long before Burge was in the picture.
“They make this leap of assumption,” she said of investigators.
Smith argued for the prosecution that common sense and the evidence will show Burge’s claim is not plausible. Multiple medical experts will testify about the nature of Hartley’s injuries, including the medical examiner, who found them to be too numerous, bizarrely placed and violent to be self-inflicted, he said.
Burge, seated at the defense table, slightly shook his head as Smith said Hartley’s injuries were inflicted by a full-grown man.
After the prosecution’s opening statement, Alsept moved for the dismissal of the first-degree murder charge. She argued there’s no evidence of premeditation. Smith countered that Burge only had to reflect for “more than a moment in time” about what he was doing, to satisfy premeditation — an issue for the jury to decide.
The defense’s motion was denied.
The trial continues Wednesday.