Detective backtracks from testimony about severity of attack on Del. girl who died in school bathroom fight

 Three Howard High School of Technology students are on trial in the death of Amy Joyner-Francis after a fight in a school bathroom in April 2016. (File/WHYY)

Three Howard High School of Technology students are on trial in the death of Amy Joyner-Francis after a fight in a school bathroom in April 2016. (File/WHYY)

A Wilmington police detective backed off Wednesday from his earlier testimony that Amy Joyner-Francis was punched at least 20 times in the head and kicked several more times in the head during a bathroom fight that led to her death last April.

The apparent discrepancy in Det. Thomas Curley’s testimony during an August pretrial hearing and what he said on the witness stand Wednesday surfaced during trial for three 17-year-old girls charged in the fatal fight at Howard High School of Technology.

The girls’ lawyers began their defense Wednesday after prosecutors wrapped up their case in two days. The defense is trying to demonstrate that the fight, which lasted about 45 seconds and was videotaped by at least two witnesses, was not as severe or brutal as prosecutors have contended.

They are also arguing that the adolescents were not mature enough to understand the possible consequences of such an altercation, and could not have anticipated Joyner-Francis, who had a rare heart condition, would die.

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The girl who fought with Joyner-Francis is charged with criminally negligent homicide, a felony. She and two friends whom prosecutors contend helped her plan and coordinate the attack are also charged with third-degree conspiracy, a misdemeanor. More than 20 students watched the fatal altercation.

The non-jury trial is being held in Family Court, after Judge Robert Coonin ruled the girls should be tried as juveniles instead of adults in a case that has drawn nationwide media attention. If she is found delinquent, the girl charged with homicide would likely face community monitoring until she turns 19. If convicted as an adult, she would face up to eight years in prison.

An autopsy showed Joyner-Francis had a heart condition, and died of sudden cardiac arrest due to the physical and emotional stress of the attack. Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Adrienne Sekula-Perlman, who testified for the prosecution Tuesday, said that while the girl’s heart had been abnormal since birth, it wouldn’t have failed her if it weren’t for the attack.

Sekula-Perlman also testified that Joyner-Francis also had several bruises and lacerations, as well as a broken finger and finger nails that had been ripped off. She ruled the death a “homicide.”

The roughly 45-second videotape of the fight has been played in court.

Curley was one of three defense witnesses called Wednesday. While he was on the stand, defense lawyer John Deckers played a recording from Curley’s testimony for the prosecution in August.

During that earlier hearing, Decker asked Curley how many times Joyner-Francis was punched in the head.

Curley testified that it appeared that she was punched there about 24 times.

Asked how many times she had been kicked in the head, Curley replied: “Six to eight times.”

After playing the tape Wednesday, Deckers asked Curley how many times he had viewed the videotape. Curley said he saw it 15 to 20 times. Asked Wedneday if he stood by his previous testimony that she sustained two dozen punches to the head. Curley backpedaled, saying, “Some of them may not have landed.”

As to the kicks to her head, Curley said some might have hit her upper body rather than her head.

After court concluded Wednesday, WHYY asked Curley about the “apparent discrepancy” between his testimony during the two court appearances. “There’s no discrepancy,” he said without elaboration.

Deckers also called private investigator Thomas Monahan, a former Wilmington police officer who previously worked with Curley and considers him a friend.

Monahan testified that he viewed the tape 75 to 100 times. By his count, the girl charged with homicide threw 22 punches and “three struck her in the head.” Monahan testified. A few others hit Joyner-Francis in the shoulder and torso area, but many missed, he testified.

The private investigator said there were “five to eight” kicks, and only one hit Joyner-Francis in the head, with many of those also missing.

Another conflict surfaced over whether Joyner-Francis’ fingernails were “ripped out” as Curley testified in August. Monahan testified that the girl’s artificial nails probably didn’t break off until the end of the fight, as she held to her alleged assailant when a classmate was pulling the other girl away.

On Wednesday, Curley acknowledged it was also fair to say they were “ripped off” as opposed to “ripped out,” but accused Deckers of “playing semantics.”

Prosecutor Sean Lugg countered by introducing photos to show that the girl charged with homicide “was the aggressor” and with the help of the other girls had initiated the fight.

The trial will resume on Monday, with one final defense witness, Deckers said. Closing arguments will likely be held Tuesday.

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