Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Terrell's aunt denies role in death, blames her niece
Steve Visser - Staff
Saturday, December 14, 2002

Terri Lynn Peterson told jurors Friday that she didn't batter, starve or murder her 5-year-old nephew. She just watched.

For the first time Friday, Peterson implicated her niece, Tasha, in the infamous 1998 death of Terrell Peterson.

Terri Peterson, a nursing aide, dropped the bombshell testifying in her murder trial in Fulton County Superior Court. She said she came home from work on the night of Jan. 15, 1998, and found 11-year-old Tasha beating Terrell with a plastic clothes hanger. Shortly afterward, Terrell collapsed, and an ambulance took him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead from cardiac arrest about 11 p.m.

He weighed 29 pounds, having lost 20 percent of his body weight in 13 months, according to hospital records that documented a separate abuse report in November 1996.

Peterson said she stayed mum about Tasha because she suspected the young girl possibly delivered the death blow. Her mom, Pharina Peterson, was also too heavy with the lash, Terri Peterson said, but she covered up for her mother. Pharina Peterson is serving a life sentence for the death.

Prosecutor David Cooke confronted Terri Peterson with pictures of Terrell showing his battered body. "Tell the jury what you did to help," Cooke said.

"My mother was the primary caretaker," said Peterson, whose defense is that she was not legally required to take care of Terrell.

Cooke's voice boomed: "What did you do to help?"

"There was nothing I could do," muttered Peterson, who leaned back in the witness chair in her flowing marine-blue outfit.

"How did it make you feel to watch your nephew starve to death in front of you?" Cook asked.

"My mother was the primary caretaker," Peterson said. "When I was around, he usually had on clothes."

Cooke paused. "So you just didn't notice?"

"I didn't know my nephew was dying," Peterson said.

Defendant blames niece

Cooke held up a photograph of the shrunken and scarred body. "You're telling the jury you couldn't look at him and tell he was dying."

"No," Peterson said quietly.

Peterson, who is to continue testifying Monday, had glared at Tasha, now 16 years old, on Wednesday and Thursday.

Tasha testified that her aunt forced Terrell, who once had a third-degree burn on his heel, to stand on a heating grate barefoot, kept him tied him up and force-fed him feces. Tasha said her grandmother and aunt fed Terrell a diet of oatmeal, barley and water while everybody else had meat and vegetables.

"Tasha lied," said Peterson, who testified she fixed Terrell fried chicken the day he died.

The aunt described cleaning the young's boy wounds with a warm cloth. She said she then fixed Terrell a late night snack of oatmeal and shortly later heard him fall.

She found Terrell trembling in a seizure and biting his lower lip. She told her boyfriend to call an ambulance. She said she performed CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to try to save his life. When she got to Hughes Spalding hospital, a doctor told her Terrell had died.

"I started crying," she said.

Parentage resented

In June 1996, social workers placed Tasha and her brothers Tommy and Terrell --- whose mother was a crack addict --- with Pharina Peterson, who lived with Terri.

At the time, it was believed all three children were fathered by Terri Peterson's brother, also a crack addict.

The women later suspected --- correctly, as it turned out --- that Terrell was another man's child.

Cooke contends the women punished Terrell for his mother's transgression because they resented caring for him.

He also contends that in November 1996, the women pulled Terrell out of a Head Start program where he got two nutritional meals a day because the boy blamed his badly bruised body on his grandmother when he was taken to Hughes Spalding.

The women aren't the only ones blamed for not caring about Terrell. His case became a rallying point for critics of the state Department of Family and Children Services.

Doctors and neighbors had warned DFCS about the abuse, but social workers either ignored the warnings or were too busy to check on Terrell, according to two state investigations.

Lawyer blames DFCS

Dr. Mary Sawyer testified Wednesday about old and fresh bruises and scars on Terrell when his birth mother brought him to Hughes Spalding on Nov. 28, 1996, after visiting him. DFCS had pressured her to sign over guardianship to Pharina Peterson in June 1996. An Atlanta Municipal Court judge dismissed the charges against Peterson when social workers missed the court hearing.

In December 1996, Terrell was back in the hospital, this time with a third-degree burn on his heel. Pharina Peterson told doctors he burned himself on a heating grate, an explanation doctors didn't accept.

The child protective agency let Terrell stay with his grandmother. A year later, Terrell was dead. Terri Peterson's lawyer, Gary Washington, lambasted DFCS to the jurors. He contended the social worker created false reports to cover up the fact she ignored her duty to protect Terrell.

"DFCS knew about it and covered it up," Washington told jurors. " So DFCS and Pharina acted in concert, not my client. . . . She committed no crime."

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