Maxwells’ Trial Focuses On Cat Waste And A Locked Door

<p>Lynn and Lindsey Maxwell arrive for the start of their trial, with reporters and photographers around them.</p>
Lynn and Lindsey Maxwell arrive for the start of their trial, with reporters and photographers around them.

The trial of Lynn and Lindsey Maxwell will turn on three things: door locks, cat poop and cat pee.  Those three items dominated the opening night of their trial on child endangerment charges in Palermo Wednesday.

They are the father and step-mother of Erin Maxwell, the 11 year old found dying in her bedroom last August 29.  They are not on trial for her death.  Erin’s stepbrother, Alan Jones, is accused of sexually abusing and then killing her.  The Maxwells are accused of having conditions in their home that were dangerous to Erin.

Each parent faces two counts of misdemeanor child endangerment.  One count alleges that the three locks on the outside of Erin’s bedroom door put her at risk of harm in an emergency.  The other count alleges that the amount of cat poop and cat pee in the home created an unhealthy place to live.

In his opening statement to the six-person jury, Assistant District Attorney Mark Moody left no adjective behind in describing conditions in the home.  “A stunning and overpowering stench of ammonia,” he said, describing a carpet “squishy” from cat urine and Erin’s bed that was “hideous and ugly and stained and grotesque.”

The master bedroom, he said, was “completely unsanitary”, filled with cats.  The bedroom closet featured “a mound, and that’s the only word that can be used, that surrounds a crate” of cat feces.  “Appalling.”

<p>Prosecutor Mark Moody, at right, watches as an unidentified person unloads evidence from a van prior to the start of Wednesday's trial.</p>
Prosecutor Mark Moody, at right, watches as an unidentified person unloads evidence from a van prior to the start of Wednesday's trial.

He alleged that Erin was locked in her bedroom often.  He said that she ate her dinner there.  And he told the jury they would hear from Lynn Maxwell’s daughter-in-law, who came to the house for an outdoor cookout two weeks before Erin’s death.  The daughter-in-law went into the house to use the bathroom and found Erin locked in her bedroom.

The door was wood from the floor to about two-thirds of the way up the doorway.  The rest was a frame of wood with screen and chicken wire, Moody explained.  On the door were three locks — two hook-and-eye style locks and a third, which he said was a lock that locked automatically whenever the door was closed.

Moody said a State Police investigator will testify that while looking through Erin’s room, the door closed behind him and locked him in.  He was unable to get out and had to get anothet Trooper to open the door from the outside.

“They (the Maxwells) don’t think this is a problem,” Moody concluded.  “They think it’s okay for an 11 year old girl to push her way through the screen in an emergency.”

Defense lawyer Sal Lanza used different adjectives to describe the home.  Messy and untidy, he said.  “It’s an old house,” he said.  “It was in rough shape. But it was a working farm.”

He described his clients as hard-working people.  Lynn Maxwell was a Licensed Practical Nurse, working at Seneca Hill, while Lindsey, a former military medic, operated the farm.

While Moody will show that animal welfare workers took more than 130 cats from the home, Lanza said the vast majority lived outdoors and seemed to be alleging that most of the cats got into the home after State Police took control of the home upon Erin’s death.

<p>Defense attorney Sal Lanza arrives for Wednesday's trial.</p>
Defense attorney Sal Lanza arrives for Wednesday's trial.

Lanza said that the Maxwells took in a few stray cats and then others began to show up with boxes of cats to abandon.  He said there were litter boxes throughout the home and that the cats were fed and watered.

As for the locked door, Lanza said flatly, “She was not ever locked into her bedroom.  She could get out.”

“There is no proof of any harm, no proof of any injury whatsoever,” he concluded.

The first witness, State Trooper Shawn Finkle, testified about being the first police officer to arrive at the home the day Erin died.  He said the 911 Center dispatched him to the home for a possible suicidal female.

He described garbage piled in bags a foot and a half high, running the full length of the front porch of the home.  But on cross-examination, he had to admit he did not know what was really in the garbage bags as they were black bags.

Finkle described “a very strong odor of ammonia similar to cat urine,” upon entering the home. “Overpowering.”  He said he saw cat feces ground into the carpet of the home.  He described opening the door to the master bedroom, which had been closed, and finding “numerous cats moving around inside that room”.  He said there were at least 20.

Lanza got Finkle to say he saw about 30 cats in the home that day — 20 in the bedroom and perhaps 10 in cages elsewhere in the house.  As for the feces in the carpet, Lanza asked Finkle if he had tested any of the feces to see exactly what it was, or whether he had kept samples as evidence.  No, said the Trooper.  Well, said Lanza, this is a farm, isn’t it?  “Isn’t it just common sense that if you live on a farm you’re gonna track in something else?”

The trial continues Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. in Palermo Town Hall.