A reporter's notebook…
Angela's family takes the stand
By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
April 17, 2002
As the first medical experts testify today in the murder trial of Peggy Sloan Starns, the atmosphere in the courtroom will change and facts will take on a sharper, more clinical, edge.
What spectators took home Tuesday, however, was an image of two women crying as defense attorney Bill Jacob asked detailed questions about what was involved in the autopsy of Angela Schnoor.
One of the two women was on the witness stand. She was Debbie Boswell, Angela Schnoor's mother.
The other was the defendant, Peggy Sloan Starns. In July 1984, when Angela died, she was Peggy Lynn Schnoor the child's stepmother. Starns is accused of suffocating Angela while the child was visiting at her father's house.
Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Leary and Assistant District Attorney Lisa Howell of Lauderdale County are putting forward an "exclusion theory" based on circumstantial evidence.
Their first goal is to establish that Angela's death from asphyxiation was not accidental. If they clear that barrier, their next challenge lies in the fact that they cannot produce witnesses who actually saw Starns do anything to cause Angela Schnoor's death.
Eight prosecution witnesses testified Tuesday, mostly relatives of Angela Schnoor.
Their testimony primarily focused on three areas: 1) animosity and bad feelings between Angela Schnoor's mother and step-mother; 2) Starns' guilty behavior while Angela was in the hospital and after she died; and 3) a necklace the prosecution suggests Starns placed behind the couch where Angela was sleeping to suggest that she was reaching for it when her arm got stuck.
The question of an autopsy
Some of the most damaging testimony came from people who were at Meridian Regional Hospital while Angela was being treated and heard Starns ask that no autopsy be performed on the child's body. Several family members testified that Starns begged Debbie Boswell and Michael Schnoor not to ask for one.
Brenda Roberson, director of respiratory care at the hospital, said she was shocked by a remark Starns made to her.
Roberson says Angela was still alive at the time.
The question of whether to perform an autopsy came up shortly after the child's death, and family members changed their minds several times.
Starns learned that there would be an autopsy at the funeral home.
Debbie Boswell's husband, Bubba, also witnessed Starns' reaction.
Defense attorney Bill Jacob suggested alternate explanations for Starns' behavior.
There are two ways to look at Starns' reaction, he said. The bad way is to assume that Starns knew an autopsy would expose her crime. The good way is to assume that, as a nurse, she knew a body is mutilated during autopsy and couldn't bear the thought of that happening to Angela.
More than one explanation
Less easy to combat was the testimony of admissions clerk Catherine Dale Pierce, who said she overheard Starns give three different explanations for how Angela suffocated.
The first version, she said, was that Angela's arm got caught in a folding couch while she was sleeping. The second was that her head got caught, and Starns had to pull her out by the legs, scratching the child's head in the process.
Pierce also said she watched as Starns' parents arrived at the hospital. She testified the first thing Starns' father said was, "Do we need to get you a lawyer?"
The fact that the state of Mississippi is presenting a circumstantial case opens a door for the defense. In a circumstantial case, jurors are given an instruction that, to convict, they must rule out every alternate theory that might explain the defendant's actions.
Jacob spent much of the day suggesting alternate reasons for Starns' actions.
He returned again and again to the idea that witnesses who initially did not accuse Starns in 1984 have embellished their recollection over the years as Debbie Boswell fought to have her daughter's death investigated more fully.
All denied it, but it was Michael Schnoor who gave the best response: "At the time, I could not believe that I had married someone who was capable of doing that."
In his cross-examination of Debbie Boswell, he returned to a theme introduced in his opening statement the idea that she persisted in years of letter-writing, appeals to public officials, investigations and lawsuits because she could not come to a resolution about the death of her daughter.
Debbie Boswell denied it: "If I had to do it all again, I'd do the same thing. I did everything I could."