Were parents of starving 6-year-old Auburn boy 'proactive' or 'torturers'? Jury to decide
You've seen this child before.
His skeletal torso, ribs rippling against the too-tight skin. His bubble belly, taut, round and empty.
Knobbly at the knees and elbows. Thin and slack everywhere else.
He is the starving child in Sudan or Ethiopia. The neglected orphan in Romania. The condemned at Dachau.
Or a 6-year-old in Auburn.
By the time help arrived for K. in March 2014, he was bruised, beaten down and starving.
He had been shedding weight for months as his teachers and school nurses pushed for help too slow in coming. His parents were feeding him hot dog-and-cooking oil smoothies, forcing him to do calisthenics and denying him sleep.
King County prosecutors claim it was all part of the torture K. endured from the people raising him - his father, Chris Sefton, and Sefton's fiancé, Lori Lloyd.
"There was no love in this kid's life," Senior Deputy Prosecutor Cecelia Gregson put it to a jury Thursday, offering closing arguments after a two-month trial.
Lloyd and Sefton are accused of abusing K., as well as Lloyd's then-7-year-old daughter and the couple's young son. Both have been jailed since charges were brought in 2014.
K. and the other children have been placed in other homes since Sefton and Lloyd were arrested. The older children have been receiving counseling.
The jury is out on Sefton, 30, and Lloyd, 31. Closing arguments were delivered Thursday at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the jury is expected to deliver verdicts on a host of charges related to their treatment of K. and the two other children who shared their home.
Attorneys for Sefton and Lloyd claimed K. was hurting himself while arguing that the accounts he and Lloyd's young daughter offered couldn't be trusted. Sefton was cast as a "proactive" and "engaged" parent by the defense, while Lloyd's attorney said she was doing her best.
On Thursday, jurors were again shown a photo of K. taken at Seattle Children's hospital shortly after Auburn police separated him from Sefton and Lloyd. Tall for 6 but weighing little more than 50 pounds, the boy appeared to be wasting away.
That image was coupled with a collection of others.
One showed him in a lackluster Halloween costume - an oversize orange shirt reading "Halloween" over jeans - posing with Lloyd's daughter and their 18-month-old half-brother. The girl, then 7, was dressed as a princess; their little brother was a skeleton.
As Senior Deputy Prosecutor Cecelia Gregson tells it, Sefton was just starting to lose control around the time that photo was taken in October 2013.
In the five months that followed, K. lost pound after pound as school workers became increasingly concerned about his treatment at home. Gregson said dozens of calls to child protective services failed to get the boy the help he needed.
"People ask, 'How can someone abuse a child?'" Gregson told the jury. "I ask, 'How could all these good people sit by and do nothing?'"
Lloyd and Sefton are accused of abusing all three children. K. was the only one they're alleged to have starved and beaten, though.
The boy arrived at school with a split lip, a bruised ear, scratches. He pulled food out of school trash cans to feed himself, choking once on a discarded muffin. His teachers created a "share basket" so the boy could be fed at school.
School nurses began weighing him, drawing Sefton's ire. He claimed he was being discriminated against because he was a man raising his child.
Addressing the jury, defense attorney Joseph Richards described Sefton as the victim of an overreaction by school staff and police. Sefton yelled at school workers when he should not have, Richards said Thursday, and "was marked as trouble."
"Mr. Sefton was an engaged parent and a proactive parent," Richards told the jury, which had heard Sefton and Lloyd testify at length days before.
Lloyd recorded K.'s injuries on video. She and Sefton exchanged smug text messages about their treatment of the boy, which were later seized by the police.
Sefton described his son as a "demon" when confronted by school workers, Gregson told the court. The boy's nurses and teachers knew a different child - they said he was gentle, kind and in desperate need of affection.
Sefton and Lloyd told school staff not to feed the boy because of imagined "dietary restrictions," and Sefton threatened to sue the school district if workers didn't stop feeding his son, Gregson told the court.
Among the humiliations forced on the boy were exercises his parents demanded of him. The malnourished child was required to do push-ups while wearing a backpack filled with canned food.
The day help finally arrived, K.'s face was bruised from a beating Sefton delivered because the boy wasn't tying his shoes properly, Gregson said. The boy was shaking uncontrollably.
"His body," Gregson said, "was literally shutting down."
Rather than a new home, the boy was taken to the emergency room at Seattle Children's. His stomach was distended from malnutrition - he was starving to death.
The boy told investigators he was only allowed to eat blended shakes comprised of bread, carrots, water, hot dogs and oil. He was offered the disgusting concoctions twice a day.
"They were using food to torture him," Gregson said. "It has the added benefit of trying to kill him, but it was a very effective form of torture."
But in Washington, what exactly qualifies as torture is an open question. Despite being a key consideration in abuse prosecutions, state lawmakers haven't defined torture and the courts have ruled that jurors know torture when they see it.
Attorneys for Sefton and Lloyd contend that their treatment of the children does not amount to torture. Richards, in a joke that drew cautious, enigmatic smiles from jurors, said he would argue that "walking into an Old Country Buffet is torture."
It was an interesting comedic choice, given that one of the more than 40 witnesses who testified against his client was a waitress who had served the family. She said K. was forced to sit alone drinking water while the rest of the family ate dinner.
Sefton is also accused of sexually abusing the children. Gregson said Lloyd did nothing to stop that abuse either.
Gregson described Sefton as having a "real mean streak," but claimed Lloyd was the "mastermind" of the abuse.
"She's the boss here, people," Gregson told the jury. "She ran the show."
Lloyd's attorney, Jennifer Anne Cruz, disputed that claim while asserting that Lloyd and Sefton provided the children with medical care, shelter and food, albeit, in K.'s case, disgusting food.
"The blenders are terrible," Cruz told the jury. "They're horrible. But they are food."
Lloyd and Sefton, she said, were "people trying the best they could with what they've got."
"Lori and Chris were parenting the best that they could," Cruz said.
Richards said his client forced K. to do "some physical stuff" because he couldn't control him. The defense attorney described the hot dog "blenders" as a parenting choice born out of concern for the boy.
"Mr. Sefton didn't keep food from" his son, Richards said. "He chose what he got to eat."
Addressing the jury, Gregson said that what Sefton and Lloyd did, though, went well beyond parental discipline.
"No one is saying parents can't discipline their kids," Gregson told the jury.
The way they treated the children, she said, was criminal abuse.
The jury, which has been empaneled since Jan. 17, is expected to begin deliberations Friday. The allegations against Sefton and Lloyd are complex and may require multiple rulings on each charge.
Lloyd and Sefton have been charged with first-degree assault of a child, second-degree assault of a child, first-degree criminal mistreatment and unlawful imprisonment. Sefton has also been charged with first-degree child rape, as well as two counts of fourth-degree assault related to allegations of sexual abuse.
Both defendants remain jailed. King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce is presiding over the matter.
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