Jurors won’t hear about the prior arrests of a Newton County couple accused of killing their 2-week-old daughter during their trial next week, prosecuting and defense attorneys agreed Tuesday. The state will, however, present evidence of the couple’s drug use and violent incidents in the days before and after the baby’s birth.
“Violence is endemic to that trailer,” Chief Judge John M. Ott said in siding with District Attorney Layla Zon. Defense attorneys argued unsuccessfully to keep details of the couple’s volatile relationship from coming up during the trial.
Caliyah McNabb was born Sept. 23, 2017 and lived only 14 days. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday for her parents, Christopher Michael McNabb and Cortney Marie Bell. McNabb told investigators that he struck Bell and shoved her while she was pregnant with Caliyah, their second child together, Zon said.
Caliyah was born a few weeks early, weighing just 5 pounds, 6 ounces. The newborn spent four days in the hospital before her parents left her first with a cousin for two days and then Bell’s father for two days, Zon said.
On Oct. 7, 2017, Bell called 911 to report the baby was missing from the family’s mobile home, launching a frantic search in the community. That evening, McNabb pleaded publicly for Caliyah’s return in front of television cameras; she was likely already dead by then, investigators say. Her tiny body was found the next day in nearby woods, a short walk from the trailer. An autopsy determined she died from blunt force trauma to the head.
McNabb was arrested and charged with Caliyah’s murder. In January 2018, a grand jury indicted him on eight counts, including malice murder, felony murder, second-degree murder, aggravated battery and concealing the death of another. The grand jury indicted Bell on second-degree murder, child cruelty and child deprivation charges.
Bell has said that after putting the baby and the couple’s 2-year-old to bed, she and McNabb smoked meth, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.
Video cameras were allowed in the courtroom Tuesday, but Ott ordered that the footage not be broadcast until after the jury is selected.
An attorney for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News argued that the First Amendment guarantees media outlets the right to report details from a public court hearing.
“I can’t risk a fair trial,” Ott said in denying the request. His ruling concerned video footage, not print coverage.
Ott said the media outlets could appeal his ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court, but by then, “it will already be over.”
Defense attorneys have filed a motion seeking to have the trial moved out of Newton due to pre-trial publicity. Ott said he cannot rule on the motion until after jury selection begins.
Attorney Cynthia Counts said a trial court must have substantial, factual basis to deny that a court hearing be immediately broadcast.
“There is damage to the public when access is denied, even for a day,” she said.
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