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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Father didn’t kill Summer, attorneys say

Defense argues Jonathan Lytle’s actions weren’t the cause of 4-year-old girl’s death

Attorneys for Jonathan Lytle, accused of homicide by abuse in the death of his 4-year-old daughter, said he was not in the room the day the girl was repeatedly submerged in a bathtub as punishment and “did not dunk her.”

Instead, Lytle’s court-appointed attorneys said in a trial brief filed Thursday that evidence will show Lytle’s wife, Adriana Lytle, “repeatedly dunked the little girl in the bathtub as part of her punishment for urinating in her clothes … and that such dunking in fact led to her death.”

Lytle is accused of torturing and killing Summer Phelps, who died in a Spokane hospital in March 2007 after being repeatedly beaten, bitten, shocked with a dog collar and submerged in a bathtub.

Adriana Lytle pleaded guilty in July to homicide by abuse and awaits sentencing. At the time, her lawyers said Summer’s father is culpable.

Jonathan Lytle had “substantial involvement in Summer’s death, and we want that to be brought out,” Assistant Public Defender Anna Nordtvedt said following Adriana Lytle’s plea.

She won’t be sentenced until after the trial of her husband, which began Monday in Spokane County Superior Court.

Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken, an expert for the state, is expected to testify in Lytle’s trial that the primary cause of the child’s death was bronchopneumonia from near drowning, but a contributing factor was blood loss from numerous bruises.

Defense expert Dr. William Brady will testify that the state can’t prove the child suffered blood loss from the bruising because they performed no tests, the trial brief says.

Lytle’s attorneys, Dennis Dressler and Edward Carroll, also contend in the brief that the state can’t prove Lytle committed homicide by abuse, although the evidence “more likely than not” shows he committed “abuse of a different nature” that didn’t lead to the child’s death.

They are asking Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price to allow the jury to choose between three charges: homicide by abuse and lesser charges of first- and second-degree assault of a child.

In Price’s court on Monday, a larger-than-normal jury pool of 105 people filled out a 16-page questionnaire that probed their feelings about child abuse.

Lawyers in the high-profile case want to know whether jurors have had any personal experiences with child abuse or the death of a child. They also are asked to share how they were disciplined as children, how they raised their own children and how they feel about corporal punishment.

Jurors are also being asked if they are familiar with the “Our Kids: Our Business” series on child abuse that began in Spokane media shortly after Summer’s death in 2007.

Lytle’s lawyers, in court documents, have argued that the series has unfairly prejudiced the jury pool. State prosecutors disagreed and opposed an earlier motion for a change of venue based on the publicity.

Price denied the change of venue motion on Sept. 9 but said the trial still could be moved or an out-of-county jury brought in if an impartial jury can’t be chosen.

Depending on the jurors’ responses to the questionnaire, Price may hear arguments Tuesday on a defense motion to close the courtroom for portions of jury selection so jurors can answer sensitive questions in private.

Jurors should not have to answer questions of an “intimate, personal nature” in a courtroom “very likely filled with the press and other morbid gawkers,” the defense motion says. Attorneys for The Spokesman-Review will argue to strictly limit any private jury questioning because of the public’s right to open courts.

In the recent civil commitment trial of Kevin Coe, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor allowed some prospective jurors to answer questions in private about their experiences with sexual assault, but a few chose to answer those questions in public.

Jury selection in the Lytle case is expected to take all week. The trial is scheduled to last three weeks.

Contact Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or karend@spokesman.com.
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