Hunter Payton died from a skull fracture two days after what his foster parent claims was a fall to the floor from a kitchen bench
The “thud” heard by Billy Embry-Martin as he turned to put dirty dishes in a dishwasher was the sound of his 4-year-old foster child falling onto the floor from his seat at a kitchen bench, he says.
“Me OK,” said the boy, Hunter Payton, as he picked himself up and took several steps, according to the foster parent.
But after the boy collapsed moments later and went into seizures, then died two days later, authorities diagnosed injuries that they allege pointed toward a homicide, and Embry-Martin was charged with murder.
“Death. It came all too soon for Hunter Payton,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Teresa Logsdon said as Embry-Martin’s case went to trial Wednesday in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, reports the Courier Journal.
During opening statements in the trial, Embry-Martin’s defense attorney, James Hafley, said of his client, “He is a loving, patient person,” according to the newspaper. “He is not a murderer.”
“This is a tragic accident and not a murder case,” he said.
Testimony on Thursday by a doctor who performed an autopsy on Hunter after the May 10, 2017, incident disputed Embry-Martin’s account, saying the injury to the back right side of the child’s head was a “very significant, forceful injury.”
“This is an injury that would make an adult cry,” said Dr. Amy Burrows-Beckham, an assistant state medical examiner, reports The News-Enterprise. “I seriously doubt he [Hunter] or an adult could jump up from this injury. I just don’t believe that story.”
Embry-Martin, 34, a pediatric nurse, was charged with murder last year after an investigation by state Child Protective Services and police challenged his account of Hunter’s fall. The boy’s skull fracture and injuries that included cuts and bruises were the result of “inflicted child abuse,” according to a review by the University of Louisville Division of Pediatric Forensic Medicine, reports the Courier Journal. The state medical examiner also ruled that the child’s injuries were inflicted and not accidental.
Hunter had been placed with Embry-Martin just two months prior to his death after social services officials removed him from the home of his biological parents. The parents were accused of alleged drug abuse and neglect after testing positive for methamphetamine and opioids, according to state social service records cited by the Courier Journal.
Embry-Martin and his husband, Travis Embry-Martin, a member of the Army stationed at Fort Knox, are registered as foster parents with Necco, a private agency that contracts with the state to offer foster care services.
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The couple had four foster children living with them, including Hunter’s older brother and younger sister, at the time of the incident, reports the News-Enterprise.
Billy Embry-Martin told authorities he was alone in the home with Hunter and a 2-year-old child while his husband was at work on that afternoon in 2017 when he says Hunter fell off the kitchen bench after eating a snack.
In a 911 call heard by jurors as the trial began, Embry-Martin said Hunter was sitting on the bench next to his sister, and when Embry-Martin turned to place dishes in a dishwasher, he heard a “thud” and turned toward Hunter. He said the boy got up from the floor, said, “Me OK,” and then went into the living room where he suffered a seizure, vomited and collapsed, according to the News-Enterprise.
The medical examiner, Burrows-Beckman, who ruled the boy’s death a homicide, said in court, “It’s my opinion that Hunter Payton died of an inflicted closed head injury,” the newspaper reports.
“I don’t see children dying from a short distance fall,” she said.
She further added, “To get this fracture, it’s a definite blow.”
The boy’s paternal grandmother, Linda Payton, who is attending the trial, told the Courier Journal, “He was an angel.”
Another relative, Hunter’s maternal grandmother Willodean Cross, said, “He was Mama’s boy,” according to the outlet. “He was the politest little boy.”
Earlier this month family members filed a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful death against Billy and Travis Embry-Martin that is separate from the criminal case, reports WDRB.
If convicted of the criminal charge against him, Billy Embry-Martin faces a penalty of 20 to 50 years in prison, or life behind bars.