Testimony begins in capital murder case: 4-year-old victim’s last words were ‘Let me go’

Published 6:57 pm Thursday, September 8, 2022

NATCHEZ — Through tears and choked voices, two medical workers on Thursday described working to revive Armani Hill, 4, who was beaten to death on June 5, 2019.

Today, Sept. 8, would have been Armani’s eighth birthday. Instead, the trial of her alleged killer began in Sixth District Circuit Court at the Adams County Courthouse.

James Christopher Anderson

James Christopher Anderson, 27, who was 24 at the time of Hill’s death, is charged with her capital murder and the felony child abuse of her sister. Lailah Hill, 3, was beaten that same day, but survived her injuries after spending two weeks at Batson’s Children’s Hospital, part of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

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Jury selection began Thursday at about 9:30 a.m. in the courtroom of Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders. By 2:10 p.m., a jury had been seated and the prosecution’s opening arguments began.

The jury who will judge whether Anderson committed capital murder and felony child abuse in this case consists of six Black women, four Black men and two white men. Two alternates were chosen — one white female and one Black female.

Sixth District Attorney Shameka Collins and Assistant District Attorney Paul Sullivan are prosecuting the case for the State of Mississippi.

Court-appointed attorneys Jeffrey Harness and Timothy Blalock represent Anderson.

Armani Hill’s mother, Lakesha M. Jones, 25 at the time of her daughter’s death, was charged with two counts of child deprivation of necessities with substantial harm. Information about the disposition of her case was not immediately available.

The family was well known to the Mississippi Department of Child Protective Services. In fact, after an investigation into the crimes, two caseworkers and a supervisor from MDCPS were removed from their jobs.

In his opening argument on Thursday afternoon, Sullivan said an autopsy showed Armani suffered a bruised and lacerated liver and a lacerated spleen, which caused profuse internal bleeding, causing her to lose consciousness.

“She no longer had enough blood circulating in her body to sustain life,” Sullivan said.

The pathologist who performed the autopsy, as well as a doctor who treated Armani at Merit Health, said her injuries had occurred within two hours of her death, Sullivan said.

Timeline

Sullivan said the children’s mother, LaKeshia Jones, worked the overnight shift — 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. — as a security guard and left the children in her boyfriend Anderson’s care.

Text messages show that Jones arrived home at 8:30 a.m. on June 5, Sullivan said. She texted Anderson at that time and told him she was going to go visit with his sister. Anderson’s sister and his mother lived together in Holiday Apartments, located about a quarter mile away from where Anderson and Jones lived on Lafayette Street.

Sullivan said at 9:12 a.m., Anderson texted Jones and asked her when she was coming home, saying the girls were up and wanted to go somewhere.

Jones texted back at 9:13 a.m., telling Anderson the girls did not need to get out in “this weather.” The day was a rainy one.

“By 10:41 a.m., something had gone wrong on Lafayette Street. That’s when Anderson texted Jones and told her there was a problem with Armani and Lailah was not doing too good, either,” Sullivan said.

Anderson left his home on Lafayette Street in the rain, carrying Armani and Lailah walking unsteadily beside him, and headed to Holiday Apartments.

Cameras at the nearby Zippy Mart captured the three on their way.

Jones met them halfway and the four continued to walk to Anderson’s mother’s apartment.

When they arrived, Anderson’s mother saw Armani’s condition and called 911 and stayed on the phone with the dispatcher.

When the ambulance arrived, driven by Emergency Medical Technician Maggie Dungan and Advance Life Support Paramedic Darlene Hawkins, responders found Armani and Lailah in a car about to leave for the hospital.

They loaded Armani, who was not conscious at the time, into the ambulance. There, Hawkins discovered bruises and other signs of abuse on her body. Armani was taken to Merit Health Natchez.

Lailah was taken to the hospital in a vehicle driven by her maternal grandmother. Her mother and Anderson’s mother were also in the vehicle.

Hawkins, who has been an AMR paramedic for 25 years, described Armani’s condition at the time she was placed in the ambulance.

“She was lethargic and had an altered mental state. Basically, she was limp. She would move her head and moan every now and then, but that’s it,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said when she lifted Armani’s shirt to place cardiac monitors on the child, she saw marks around Armani’s neck and bruises on her entire body, including scarring on her body that looked like healed wounds.

Hawkins remained in the trauma rooms while nurses and doctors attempted to stabilize and revive Armani.

“The last thing she said was ‘Let me go,’ ” Hawkins said.

After Armani died, which was within an hour of arriving at the hospital, the decision was made to transfer Lailah, who was being treated in an adjoining trauma room at Merit Health, to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Dungan drove the ambulance with Lailah to Jackson and Hawkins and an ER nurse from Merit Health Natchez rode with her in the back.

Hawkins testified that Lailah slept almost all the way to Jackson.

‘J.C. hit us. He always hits us.’

Shannon Russ, who has worked at Merit Health Natchez since 1988, is director of emergency services at the hospital. She testified that she was notified that two children, who were expected of being abused, were coming into the hospital by ambulance.

Russ, who took part in the treatment of Armani and Lailah, said she asked Lailah who hurt her. Russ testified the child said, “J.C. hit us,” and identified J.C. as her mother’s boyfriend.

When child abuse is suspected, Russ said no family is allowed back in the treatment area with the children.

Russ said she asked another staff member at the hospital to stay with Lailah to help comfort her while she was treated. Russ said Lailah repeated to that person, “J.C. hit us. He always hits us.”

Anderson, who wore a blue disposable face mask, watched video shown from two Natchez Police officers’ body cameras showing Armani’s limp body being loaded into the back of the ambulance and images of her coding and dying in the emergency room. He showed no emotions, but took notes from time to time on a legal pad.

After Russ’s testimony ended at about 4:30 p.m., Sanders adjourned court for the day. She told jurors to not read the newspaper, go on the internet or social media, or talk to anyone about what they heard during court on Thursday.

Prosecutors plan to call additional witnesses on Friday morning beginning at 8:30 a.m.