Torian Whittaker died because he was struck in the chest at exactly the wrong moment and the wrong angle, according to expert testimony in the murder trial of Tavon Ludy on Wednesday.
Ludy, 27, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Torian Whittaker, his fiancee’s son. Ludy admitted to punching Torian in the chest on Sept. 29, 2013, at their home in unincorporated Glen Carbon, because the boy disobeyed him, knocking him off a stool. Torian stood back up, and then fell over, unconscious.
Ludy said he attempted CPR, then called 911. First responders took Torian to Anderson Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
It was Torian’s fifth birthday.
The jury on Wednesday also heard from Torian’s older brother, Zajamin Fordson, who is now 10 years old.
Zajamin took the stand Wednesday morning, and testified that when he came back in from taking out the trash, he saw Torian unconscious on the floor the day of the beating.
“I was scared,” he said, and Ludy told him to go to his room.
He referred to Ludy as his “stepdad,” and said Ludy often had them “stand on the wall” or gave them a “whipping” with a belt. Punishments were meted out for not listening or following directions, he said.
Before Ludy moved in, he said, he wasn’t whipped with a belt. He got in trouble sometimes, he said, and the teacher put tape around his desk.
Dr. Raj Nanduri, a now-retired forensic pathologist, testified that the blunt force applied to Torian’s chest caused Torian’s heart to stop and was his cause of death. “It happens in children under 18 years of age,” she said. “The chest wall is not fully formed and compressible.”
It happens in children under 18 years of age. The chest wall is not fully formed and compressible.
Dr. Raj Nanduri, pathologist
A blunt trauma to a child’s chest is going to have a stronger effect than on an adult, she said, particularly if the child is struck at exactly the wrong point of the cardiac cycle, when the heart is most vulnerable. She said the impact coinciding with that point of the heartbeat cycle is “quite rare,” and is usually seen in contact sports.
Nanduri said it was difficult to estimate the force used, but tests of baseball impacts have been shown it can happen at an impact of 20 mph. At more than 50 mph, she said, different injuries are shown inside the chest.
But when a heart is thrown out of rhythm, she said, it is difficult for it to start again. The patient might get up, she said — but would probably collapse again within seconds or minutes.
“If they do not get help in the form of an (automated external defibrillator) the mortality rate is very, very high,” she said. With the use of AEDs, which are often required in youth sporting arenas now, Nanduri said survival rates have risen to 58 percent.
Ludy has also been charged with aggravated battery to a child, accused of also beating Zajamin. On Tuesday, the boys’ mother, Toria Coleman, testified that Ludy assumed the discipline of the boys when they moved in together as “the man of the house.” She said Ludy felt she was too lenient with the children, and imposed calisthenic-style discipline, requiring them to run and do push-ups, and used a belt for corporal punishment.
Coleman was not present when Ludy punched Torian. She was out buying him a birthday present. She was also charged with endangering a child, a felony that required her to leave the U.S. Army. She is due to have her charge reduced to a misdemeanor after Ludy’s trial.
Dr. Christopher Wangard, a pediatrician with Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and Anderson Hospital, later testified that on the day Torian died, he examined Zajamin. He noted a number of bruises and injuries in various stages of healing. He said linear bruises like Zajamin’s are more often a result of child abuse — hitting a child with a belt or a stick — as opposed to round bruises that occur from bumping into things.
The prosecution displayed a series of images of bruises all over Zajamin’s legs, arms and buttocks, most of which were linear bruises, Wangard said. He said the pattern and number of bruises were consistent with child abuse and would not be the type of bruises to occur from normal play.
“There is no pattern in nature that would cause those lines of bruises,” Wangard said. “These bruises are the result of being hit.”
There is no pattern in nature that would cause those lines of bruises. These bruises are the result of being hit.
Dr. Christopher Wangard, pediatrician
Wangard said he documented Zajamin’s injuries and his suspicions of child abuse. Under cross-examination, he said that striking with a hand would generally not cause the linear bruising he saw on Zajamin, and that the older brother had no injuries to his chest.
Zajamin was nervous about testifying and wanted his mother in the room. Fahrenkamp objected, as Coleman is a witness and is facing charges herself in this case, and felt she may influence Zajamin’s testimony. Napp ruled that Coleman could be present, as her testimony has already taken place. She sat in the back and was crying while Zajamin testified. Later, both Fahrenkamp and prosecutor Jennifer Mudge agreed her testimony did not appear to affect Zajamin’s testimony.
The prosecution finished with an audio recording of Zajamin’s initial interview at the Child Advocacy Center with Lt. Carol Presson, who is a trained child interviewer with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department. Zajamin’s interview, which took place the day Torian died, confirmed that he didn’t see it happen, but said that Ludy told him he had punched Torian in the chest. Zajamin said it was a common punishment when the children “did something really really bad,” like taking candy or going over to a friend’s house without permission.
After the jury was dismissed for the day, Fahrenkamp requested permission to present evidence of a previous Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigation that concluded that the reports of child abuse were unfounded. Napp ruled the evidence inadmissible, stating that the reports were full of hearsay and would open up a “mini-trial” on previous occurrences.
“What DCFS does doesn’t come close to a criminal investigation,” Napp said. She also pointed out that in his interview with DCFS, Ludy claimed he had never hit the children with a belt, which was contradicted by later testimony and would prove prejudicial against him.
“This only shows the lack of investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services,” Napp said. “The fact (is) that these children were interviewed quickly, (report determined) unfounded, sent back home and a few months after a child is dead.”