The accused

In this week's Personal Journeys, AJC reporter Christian Boone shares the story of Christopher Routh, who in 2001 was charged with the murder and molestation of 23-month-old Emily Woodruff. Two years later, Routh was acquitted of the charges.

Fourteen-year-old Christopher Routh was mowing his aunt’s grass when the police came knocking at his parents’ door, arrest warrant in hand for the Lawrenceville teenager.

His mother, Sissy Routh, gave them as little information as possible. Then she called her husband.

“Go get Chris now!”

Charlie Routh barely beat detectives to his sister-in-law’s house where he collected his son and took him into temporary hiding as the family’s attorney, Phyllis Miller, negotiated Christopher’s surrender.

The resulting conversation was one no father ever imagines having with his son.

“Hell is the only way to describe it,” said Charlie, recalling that July day in 2001 when he told Christopher he was going to be arrested in connection with the death of a 23-month-old girl he had baby-sat. They learned of the charges that night on the TV news — Christopher was accused of shaking the toddler to death and, shockingly, prosecutors alleged he had sexually assaulted the little girl, the daughter of a family friend.

“It didn’t seem real,” Charlie said. “We stayed up all night, just talking.”

That morning, the Rouths turned Christopher over to the police, who transferred him to the Gwinnett Youth Detention Center. The cherubic honor student who dreamed of playing football for the Central Gwinnett Knights now stood accused of crimes too horrible to comprehend.

“Being locked up is nothing compared to having someone tell you they believe you killed a child,” said Christopher, now 26. “For someone to suggest I could do these things … I mean, I loved these kids. It was just unbelievable to me.”

2. ‘My 2-year-old is not breathing’

If you lived in Lawrenceville very long, chances are you knew Charlie and Sissy Routh. Sissy grew up there and possesses the oversized personality that knows no strangers. Charlie, raised in Alaska, the son of an Army officer, is soft-spoken but no less inviting.

Sissy Weeks was engaged to another man when she met Charlie Routh, a photographer who was hired to shoot a portrait of the betrothed couple. A few years later, she hired him again to take anniversary pictures of her parents.

“So, did you ever get married?” Charlie asked Sissy. She hadn’t, and that weekend they went on their first date. Marriage followed soon after, and then the children — first Christopher, then Emily. The couple supported their family as small-business owners: Charlie had a photography studio in town, and just a few blocks away was Sissy’s clothing boutique for children.

Kim Woodruff came into the Rouths’ lives in spring 2000 when she answered a help-wanted sign in the window of Sissy’s store. The young mother of two and her new boss became fast friends. Before long, Christopher, then a rising high school freshman, became the de facto baby sitter for the Woodruffs' two children: 3-year-old Hunter and 23-month-old Emily.

Christopher’s maturity belied his years, and the kids took to him as if he was their big brother. Woodruff would later say he was the only baby sitter she trusted.

Like his father, Christopher was even-tempered and hard to roil. They were both members of a scuba-diving club; Christopher being the youngest member. His bedroom walls were a photographic travelogue of posters from all the places they visited on diving trips.

But scuba diving is not a hobby without peril.

“I always taught him, ‘If you panic, you’re going to die,’” Charlie Routh said.

When Christopher arrived at the Woodruffs' Loganville home on July 25 to watch her children, he could tell Emily — who had been taken to the emergency room a week earlier with a stomach virus — was not feeling well. She seemed lethargic and irritable. After a short nap, Christopher tried to feed her a cracker. She responded with a fitful series of coughs and “a gurgling type noise,” he said.

Emily’s breathing became increasingly labored, and then it stopped.

Christopher called 911.

“My 2-year-old’s not breathing,” he calmly told the operator. “I’m baby-sitting for her, and she’s not breathing.”

Prosecutors would later use Christopher’s steady demeanor against him, painting the 14-year-old as a cold-blooded killer.

3. Two Christopher Rouths

Emily Woodruff was in grave condition by the time she arrived at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Two days later, she was pronounced dead. By then police had built what looked to be a solid case against Christopher.

The physicians who treated her found swelling of the brain consistent with shaken baby syndrome. And one of the EMTs who treated Emily noticed vaginal tears, leading prosecutors to charge Routh with sexual assault.

“I just wonder what made him snap,” Kim Woodruff told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after Christopher’s arrest. “Justice needs to be done.”

The media pounced on the story of the baby-faced baby sitter turned accused killer. With Christopher’s defense still taking shape, reporters relayed the state’s narrative without much rebuttal. District attorney Danny Porter noted that Christopher refused to speak with police, who wanted to interview the teen without his lawyer present. Charlie and Sissy Routh denied the request.

“I didn’t understand that,” Kim Woodruff told the CBS magazine show “48 Hours,” which ran a segment on the case. “I thought, if you’re innocent, why do you have to have an attorney present?”

Those first nights in the YDC were the worst. Christopher knew his family believed in his innocence, but did anyone else?

When he first met attorney Doug Peters, brought on the case by Miller, Christoper collapsed into his arms.

“He just begged me to help him,” said Peters.

Those who knew Christopher well refused to think him capable of such malevolence. His middle-school principal, Sunday-school teacher and a Gwinnett judge who was a member of the scuba club all testified on his behalf at his bond hearing.

“When a child that young dies, people want someone held accountable,” Christopher said. “And I was that someone.”

Christopher remained locked up for 360 days before finally being granted bail. While incarcerated, he tried to remain as invisible as possible, steering clear of trouble — and troublemakers.

And he resolved not to let the experience break him, drawing strength from the Book of Job.

“I put it all in God’s hands,” Christopher said. “That’s where my strength came from.”

He’d need it. Peters offered no illusions about the trial.

“It was not going to be easy. Part of our challenge was to get all the health records of (Emily Woodruff),” said Peters, who has represented some of Georgia’s most notorious accused murderers, including Dunwoody day care shooter Hemy Neuman and dentist Barton Corbin, who confessed to killing his wife and girlfriend, among others. “That was going to be the key.”

4. The longest year

The level-headedness that served Christopher so well on deep sea dives was misinterpreted by those who followed the case, including Emily Woodruff’s parents.

“‘He’s too calm, he’s too cool, he must be guilty,’” Sissy remembered hearing people say. “But that’s what he was taught.”

Christopher’s little sister Emily, now 22, heard much worse.

“I’d be in class and I’d hear kids say, ‘Your brother is a baby killer,’” she said.

She tried to shield her parents from her grief, saving the tears for her pillow.

“We were lucky to have an incredible support system,” said Sissy. “Our friends, our church, they wrapped their arms around us.”

Friends and family would sneak Christopher pen and paper, which were not allowed in the YDC. Whenever possible he scribbled notes to his sibling, discreetly passing them on to his parents during their weekly visits.

“In a sense, he was my therapist,” Emily said. “I could tell him things I didn’t want my parents to know, like what people were saying and what I was feeling.”

Meanwhile, Charlie Routh was the family’s rock.

“I could say, after all this, that my dad was one strong man,” Emily said. “He turned into an alpha dog.”

“No one was going to take his family away,” Sissy said.

The Christmas spent without Christopher illustrated their bond. He passed along three notes to his family, each one featuring a specifically tailored Bible verse.

For Emily, it was Matthew 7:7-8: “Seek and you shall find.”

Mom’s was taken from the third chapter of Romans: “Humans may disappoint, but God is true. Remain faithful.”

Dad received the parable of the mustard seed, from Mark 4: “The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all seeds. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

“Christopher had found a way to be with us,” Sissy recalled. “He knew just what we needed.”

5. Day of reckoning

Five-year-old Michaela couldn’t wait to see her favorite cousin, guarding the front door like a pit bull as family and friends gathered to surprise the 15-year-old murder suspect. After a year in YDC, Christopher was granted bond in July 2002.

That first hug was going to be hers.

“I remember her opening the door, looking so happy to see me,” recalled Routh from his home in Jackson, Miss.

Routh also remembers hesitating. Considering the accusations against him, he couldn’t help but wonder if people looked at him differently, especially around kids.

“But I know I didn’t do anything. Why should I change the person I was?” said Routh, who gave Michaela her hug.

It was a moment that would inform the rest of his life.

Georgia’s chief medical examiner, Kris Sperry, has testified in hundreds of court cases for the state since joining the GBI in 1997. Christopher Routh’s case marked the first time he appeared for the defense.

Sperry agreed to review the evidence as a favor to Peters, an old friend.

“I see child abuse cases all the time,” said Sperry, who has nearly 30 years forensic experience, “and you have to look for the things that are the exceptions, not the rule.”

In Christopher’s case, it was the things that were missing. Most strikingly: X-rays taken of Emily Woodruff a week before she died, which revealed she had a brain clot — something the radiologist who examined the child had overlooked.

“That’s what caused the swelling around her brain” — not shaken baby syndrome, Sperry concluded.

Meanwhile, even Gwinnett’s medical examiner had expressed doubts about the cause of the vaginal tears.

“They were not consistent with sexual abuse,” said Sperry last month, in his first public comments about the Routh case.

Eczema was responsible, he said. Emily Woodruff’s itching likely caused the tears.

Peters knew Sperry would make a powerful witness. But getting a state employee to testify against his employer required a subpoena, which didn’t sit well with prosecutors.

“It was very unusual for me to be testifying against the state,” Sperry said. “But (GBI director) Vernon Keenan told me that if I had been subpoenaed, I had to do it.

“I wanted to testify. This was a miscarriage of justice that was about to happen.”

Among those testifying for the prosecution were the doctors, nurses and first responders who treated Emily Woodruff, each testifying that the toddler had been sexually assaulted and shaken to death by her teenage baby sitter. It was an understandable conclusion — minus knowledge of the blood clot and eczema.

After four days of damning testimony, Sperry was called to the stand.

“I find it very unusual that if this child was shaken, that there was no evidence of any bruising on the chest wall, or even any broken ribs,” he testified.

By the time he was finished, the defense had raised serious doubts about the prosecution’s case.

“You could feel the momentum swing,” Peters said. “It was phenomenally important for us.”

Sperry calls it one of the proudest moments of his career.

“I don’t think anyone can comprehend the inner strength (Christopher) summoned,” said the veteran medical examiner.

Christopher credits his strength to his faith — in God, himself and the legal system.

“I was a kid,” he said, looking back. “Kids are pretty optimistic by nature.”

When deliberations began, the Rouths were feeling confident. Then, a dispiriting question from the jurors: Could they convict solely on the murder charge?

“Our hearts sank,” Sissy said.

Hours later, the jury emerged with the news the Rouths had been waiting to hear: Christopher was acquitted of all counts.

“We went through every scenario,” said jury foreman Bruce Griffin following the verdict. “There was really no proof to convict him.”

For Christopher, a lifetime’s worth of stress was suddenly gone.

“My life was put on hold,” Christopher said. “I couldn’t wait to get it back.”

6. A return to normal

When Christopher was arrested, he was still a boy at the onset of puberty. He was 16 when acquitted, a few inches taller, his voice deeper.

“He went to jail a child and came back a man,” his father said.

Circumstance left him no choice.

The Rouths thought Christopher might want to switch to a new school to finish his education, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I never had thoughts of going anywhere but Central. Why should I go anywhere else?” he said.

He wanted things to go back to the way they were before his 17 month-long nightmare — save for the driver’s license the 16-year-old had yet to obtain.

“They had taken enough from me. I wasn’t going to let them take any more,” Christopher said.

Still, the first day back in school was surreal.

“It was strange,” he said. “There was a realization — everyone’s going to know, but what could I do about it?

There were some who treated him differently — but not many. Then Principal Valerie Clark, now a state representative, said Christopher’s return went so smoothly because “everyone knew what a good kid he was.”

By and large, life returned to normal for Christopher. He got his driver’s license and a spot on the Central Gwinnett football team, earning a scholarship to play Division III football at Mississippi College in Jackson.

It wasn’t until he met Emily Lassiter during his sophomore year of college that he felt the need to share his story — a conversation he dreaded.

“You just have to spit it out,” Christopher said.

Emily tried to act surprised. Christopher hadn’t considered Google.

“That’s what you do when you date someone,” said Emily. “You Google their name just to see if they have any deep dark secrets.”

She had known his secret for months, even discussing it with Christopher’s sister.

“By then, I knew him pretty well. I’d seen him interact with my little cousins,” she said. “I never questioned his innocence.”

Still, she did her research. So did her brother, an attorney. Christopher passed his test.

“My biggest question for him was, ‘How do you come back from that?’” said Emily, whose outgoing personality mirrors Sissy Routh’s.

The couple married in December 2011.

Christopher has never visited a therapist. Though he’s become comfortable sharing his story, he’s not one to wallow in feelings.

His mother said she never worried about Christopher’s mental state after the trial.

“He would talk about it,” she said. “When they bottle up, that’s when you worry.”

7. Back in the courtroom

There are lawyers who became defendants, such as Fred Tokars, the Cobb County attorney who arranged to have his wife killed and is serving life without parole. But how many defendants become lawyers?

Doug Peters said he can’t recall ever coming across one.

“You’d think, after what he went through, that Christopher wouldn’t want to go anywhere near a courtroom,” he said.

But it was his trial that got Christopher thinking about a career in law.

“It wasn’t something I had ever thought about before, but I think it’s what I’m supposed to do” Christopher said. “It’s my path.”

He’s on track to graduate from Mississippi College’s law school in May, with a career in criminal defense to follow.

His past, so often a burden, is now an asset.

“He has a level of empathy you can’t teach,” said his boss, Graham Carner, public defender for the city of Clinton, Miss. “When he tells a client he knows what he’s going through, he means it.”

Still, Carner was floored when Christopher shared his tale a few months after joining the office.

“I couldn’t believe it, not only because he doesn’t seem like a person who could ever be capable of committing such a crime, but because he’s got absolutely no bitterness about it,” Carner said. “He does not seem to bear the scars of someone who went through what he went through.”

Doug Peters couldn’t be prouder. He’s forged a relationship with Christopher that borders on paternal.

“He not only had confidence in himself through all he was going through, but he had faith in the legal system,” Peters said. “I’m glad the right result was reached in his case because it just magnified his belief in the law.”

Not everyone thinks the Gwinnett jury got it right. “It was like losing our daughter a second time,” said Lee Woodruff, the dead child’s father, after Christopher’s acquittal.

Woodruff chuckled when told recently that Routh was pursuing a career in law.

“My opinions haven’t changed,” he said, declining further comment.

Asked to reflect on his role in the case, Danny Porter, Gwinnett’s District Attorney then and now, responded with a statement:

“My office took the case to trial because we believed that he was guilty of the charges. The jury found him not guilty, which means that the case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury did not make a finding he was innocent. As far as we’re concerned, the story ends there.”

For Christopher, the story is just beginning.

“At some point in my very near future, I’m going to be representing a guy who may have the same charges against him as I did,” he said. “That person may not have the support I did, but I can look him in the eyes and say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’”

Christopher never wanted his ordeal to define him, but he acknowledges there’s no escaping it. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“It made me a stronger person,” he said. “And hopefully, a better lawyer.”

How we got the story

When defense attorney Doug Peters casually mentioned that one of his former clients — acquitted of murder 10 years earlier — was about to graduate from law school, reporter Christian Boone knew it had the potential for a compelling story. That was before he learned of the twist and turns of the Christopher Routh case, particularly the unprecedented testimony from Georgia’s chief medical examiner on behalf of the defense. Routh required some convincing to participate, however. But thanks to some lobbying from his former lawyer, the recently married 26-year-old agreed to a series of interviews, first in Jackson, Miss., where he now lives, and then in Lawrenceville, where the future defense attorney was joined by his parents, sister and wife. Boone learned firsthand of the remarkable strengh exhibited by a 14-year-old boy who refused to crumble in the face of horrific accusations.

Ken Foskett,
assistant managing editor

About the reporter

Christian Boone joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007, not long after attending the University of Southern California’s graduate screenwriting program. Boone, an Atlanta native, enjoys the rich variety of stories he’s privileged to cover — everything from sensational criminal trials to investigative pieces to quirky feature stories. The Inman Park resident is plugging away at a new screenplay that he hopes to complete before the end of this millennium.