Attorneys delivered their closing arguments in Ryan M. Burge’s murder trial Wednesday in front of a courtroom filled to capacity with 5-year-old Hartley Anderson’s family and supporters, many of whom had sat through more than a week of testimony.
The prosecution argued that voluminous evidence showed that Burge savagely attacked Hartley for throwing a fit while the defense asserted that the girl had a history of self-harm and caused her own fatal injuries.
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. Nataasha Luchau had called 911 about her unresponsive daughter.
Burge, Luchau’s live-in boyfriend at the time, had been babysitting Hartley all day while Luchau worked and her sons were at school.
In an interview with detectives, Burge said Hartley “threw a temper tantrum” when they left a grocery store, according to a probable cause affidavit. When they got home, Burge said he sent Hartley to her room, where she banged her head against a wall repeatedly.
A neurosurgeon at the children’s hospital told a detective the girl suffered a stroke and massive brain swelling. The doctor said the injuries to her head “could not be self-inflicted,” the affidavit says.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor James Smith told the jury during closing arguments that Burge’s claim that Hartley killed herself was utterly implausible.
The prosecutor asked jurors to recall home surveillance videos played during the trial. The footage showed Hartley keeping herself company for the entire day while Burge spent time in a bedroom alone, Smith said. Hartley was patient and played with toys. There were no signs of behavioral issues; development delays, as the defense has said she may have suffered from; or fits of psychosis, he said.
Smith also made a point to note Burge’s impassiveness toward Hartley in the videos. He asked the jury to ponder whether the footage showed a man who wanted nothing to do with a child until her mother got home.
“In his interview with a detective, (Burge) is frustrated,” Smith said. “He thought he would establish discipline and order in the household. It was clear (from his statements to police) that he did not appreciate her tantrums.”
Hartley may have thrown a tantrum shortly before she was severely beaten, but the tantrum did not kill the girl, according to the prosecutor. Instead, there was a back-and-forth between Burge and Hartley, with Burge demanding the girl stop and giving her ultimatums before he physically took out his rage on the 3-foot 3-inch, 45-pound child, Smith said.
Burge slammed Hartley’s head into drywall; she also had 20 points of impact to her head and face, Smith said. Dr. David Adler, of Columbia Neurosurgical Associates, testified that Hartley could not have injured herself to such an extent, according to Smith.
“You don’t have to take my word that a brutal attack was carried out on Hartley. The evidence shows it,” Smith said.
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. Smith told the jury that while some of them may disagree with the mother’s course of action, she was acting based on information provided by Burge and appropriately called for help when she determined it was far worse than she first believed.
Burge’s thought process supports the state’s charge of first-degree murder, Smith argued. His frustration about her behavior before the assault, his back-and-forth with the girl in the bedroom and his subsequent actions constitute premeditation, he said.
Defense attorney Michele Michalek told the jury to put their emotions aside and think with their heads. She called the state’s case unreasonable.
Michalek said that Burge lamented to investigators that Hartley was usually a well-behaved child, but the problem was her “exorcismlike tantrums.”
“She would arch her back, throw her head into things,” Michalek said.
When Burge entered the family’s lives, he wanted to change its acceptance of Hartley’s outbursts. Burge wanted to get the girl help and was reluctant to babysit her out of concern that she would hurt herself, Michalek said.
The defense attorney pointed to medical records that showed Hartley visited the hospital more than once for hitting her head, adding that the girl’s habit of banging her head on things may have been a sign of autism. However, Dr. Kimberly H. Copeland testified earlier this week that Hartley did not have the developmental disorder, or any others.
Burge was seriously upset about Hartley’s injuries, according to Michalek. She argued that Luchau instructed Burge not to call 911 because her daughter was “faking it.” Michalek said Burge called for help anyway but hung up when it kept ringing with no answer.
Among several additional arguments, Michalek said Burge did not have a single drop of blood on his clothing, and his hands had no markings beyond a scratch.
“Those hands did not punch that little girl,” she said.
“Dr. Adler said (Hartley) died from rapid acceleration, rapid deceleration,” Michalek said. “That’s what Ryan has been saying. She catapulted herself into the wall.”
In his rebuttal, Smith said the defense’s version of events were reasonable for a person trying to talk themselves out of trouble.
“The nonsense story remains nonsense no matter how many times you say it,” Smith said.