When Summer Phelps was brought to the emergency room on March 10, 2007, the treating physician thought the 4-year-old was a cancer patient because of her injuries, according to testimony Monday in the homicide-by-abuse trial of her father, Jonathan Lytle.
Dr. Darrol C. Hval, an emergency room physician at Deaconess Medical Center, said the 45-pound child was covered from head to toe with purple bruises and large chunks of her long red hair were missing.
“She was purple everywhere – I thought she was a cancer child,” Hval said under questioning from Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz. Hval said he’d never seen bruises that extensive.
Shortly after 11:32 p.m. that night, when Lytle walked in with her, a half-dozen medical experts scrambled to try to revive the comatose child, Hval said. “There were no signs of breathing – we couldn’t find a pulse.”
After about 20 minutes, the doctors and nurses gave up, concluding the child was dead when she arrived at the hospital.
“What impression did this have upon you?” Steinmetz asked.
“That the child was beat up,” Hval added.
Hval said it was the worst case of child abuse he’d seen in 15 years as a physician – and it was so traumatic that counselors had to be brought in to comfort the people who failed to revive Summer.
Lytle seemed “distant” and displayed no emotion when he was asked how Summer was injured, Hval said.
“He had one outburst at the end when I told him she was dead. He threw his arm up and turned around.”
James P. Lyons III, the charge nurse that night, said Lytle told him Summer was a “bad child” who had beaten her head on a crib and fell asleep in the bathtub – where prosecutors said she’d been forced for hours that day to wash her urine-soaked bedding.
Lytle showed no emotion when he described his child’s injuries, Lyons said. “He spoke in a flat, calm tone – ‘My daughter is not breathing.’ ”
Lyons’ testimony prompted a furious response from Lytle, who was sitting in the courtroom beside his defense counsel and growing more agitated as he flipped through his yellow notepad and half rose.
“You are … lying,” Lytle said, loudly using profanity to punctuate his accusation, and prompting Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael P. Price to order him to be quiet.
“I was horrified,” Lyons said. “This little person had a body completely covered with horrible injuries from head to toe. A hallmark of ongoing child abuse is various stages of healing bruises.”
“I threw up several times” at home that night and the next day when Deaconess emergency room staff met as a group in an effort to cope with the tragedy, Lyons said.
Summer’s injuries surpassed any others he’d seen while working as an emergency room and pediatric trauma nurse in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New Jersey, Lyons added.
“This is the single most horrific case I’ve encountered in 15 1/2 years as an emergency room nurse all over the United States,” he said.
Monday afternoon, some jurors appeared on the verge of tears as Spokane Police Detective Brian Hamond of the department’s Major Crimes Unit showed them photos of the dead child’s injuries – including human bite marks – taken at Deaconess. One male juror closed his eyes after looking at the evidence.
Hamond, an expert in child abuse investigations, said he’d never seen a body that extensively bruised.
In opening arguments Monday morning, prosecutors and defense attorneys addressed a packed courtroom, which included Elizabeth Phelps, Summer’s biological mother. Phelps, who had custody of Summer, allowed the child to visit Lytle and his wife, Adriana, for a one-month visit in August 2006 but failed to retrieve her. Six months later, Summer was dead.
In his opening statement, Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll told the jury that Summer had 130 bruises and 106 contusions, including bite marks, cuts and burns from a dog’s shock collar, on her body.
“The evidence will show the injuries were caused by Jonathan Lytle and his wife, Adriana,” Driscoll said, asking for a guilty verdict. Adriana Lytle has pleaded guilty to homicide by abuse and awaits sentencing following the verdict in her husband’s trial.
Lytle’s attorney, Dennis Dressler, described Lytle, a welder, as a “working stiff” struggling to support his family who left the disciplining of Summer to his wife. The family, which also included an infant son, Johnny, and a golden retriever, was crowded into a tiny studio apartment on North Monroe Street where tensions escalated, Dressler said.
Summer was only supposed to stay a month, but six months went by and daily life turned into a “battle of wills” between Summer and Adriana Lytle, Dressler said.
“She was hardly equipped to be a parent. She was the equivalent of a modern-day Dr. Mengele,” Dressler said in a reference to the Nazi doctor who conducted brutal experiments.
“She assumed the role, apparently willingly,” Dressler said.
He asked jurors to deliver a not guilty verdict at the end of Lytle’s trial.
Today nurses from the First Steps program will testify about their efforts to check on the welfare of Summer and the Lytles’ 8-month old son – including how Jonathan Lytle evaded their scrutiny on March 10, 2007, the last morning of Summer’s life, by taking her out of the apartment on a car trip to Cheney so the visiting nurse wouldn’t see Summer’s bruises.