Tracy Rhame was just 2 when her infant brother was killed, and she grew up being told it was her fault because she threw him from his crib.
On Wednesday, the now 28-year-old Rhame testified she took the blame all those years because her mother was trying to protect the stepfather now charged with the slaying.
“My mother told me it was easier to say that I was responsible … than to see the man she loved go to jail,” Rhame told jurors, her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears.
Her testimony came in the trial of Jan Barry Sandlin, 46, who is charged with murder, aggravated assault and child cruelty in the 1971 death of 4-month-old Matthew Golder.
The child’s death was ruled an accident at the time. But Rhame contacted authorities in 1994 and got the case reopened. Sandlin was indicted in December.
“She told me ‘He did it. Just forget about it,”’ Rhame said, recounting a conversation with her mother from the late 1980s.
She also said her mother later recanted her statements and tried to dissuade her from digging into the past.
Prosecutors believe Sandlin beat the baby to death while Rhame, then Tracy Golder, and her mother were away doing laundry.
When they arrived home, Sandlin told his wife to get the clothes out of the car before coming inside the house, then put the toddler in the baby’s crib to cast blame on her, the prosecution has said.
“These injuries did not come about as a result of a 2-year-old pushing, dropping, stumbling with the baby,” prosecutor Jeff Brickman said.
The details surrounding the baby’s death started to emerge when no autopsy records could be found, although the prosecution revealed Wednesday that an autopsy was conducted at the time of the infant’s death. Hospital records showed that the baby’s injuries were inconsistent with a fall from a crib.
In her opening statement, public defender Corinne Mull said Rhame’s long-simmering anger about being blamed from her brother’s death led to the charges against Sandlin.
“She’s angry today, and she has a right to be,” Mull said.
But she said a version of the story that Rhame heard from her mother, Kathy Almon, misled her to speculate that Sandlin had killed the infant.
“This is also a story about a little girl who was lied to,” Mull said.
Mull said the evidence will show that Sandlin is innocent. He is serving a life sentence in Florida for an unrelated armed robbery.