Judge rules on trial use of photos in case of Sullivan County toddler Evelyn Boswell
Evelyn Boswell. (Photo: Tennessee Bureau of Investigation)
After weeks of wild goose chases in the 2020 search for missing Sullivan County toddler Evelyn Boswell, authorities finally had a solid lead.
It came on March 6, 2020, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Brian Fraley testified Friday at a hearing in Sullivan County Criminal Court, from Evelyn’s grandfather, Tommy Boswell Sr.
“We received a call from (Evelyn’s grandfather) talking about … a storage shed on (his) property,” Fraley said. “He believed it may have been valuable for us to look in it and search.”
Inside the storage shed on the Boswell family homestead on Muddy Creek Road was a playhouse Tommy Boswell Sr. had built years ago for Megan Boswell, his daughter and teenage mother of the then-missing toddler.
“That playhouse had not been played in for years,” Fraley said.
When the agent opened the door to the playhouse, he saw a trash can that looked out of place.
“It was my belief (the trash can was) placed there recently,” Fraley said.
The agent said he removed the trash can from the playhouse, lifted a trash bag covering the top portion of the can and peered inside.
“I observed a leg (with) a foot attached … on top of the trash,” the agent said.
Fraley said he knew at once that the mystery that had captured the attention of people across the world — where was 15-month-old Evelyn? — had finally been solved.
But a key question remained: Was Evelyn dead from an accidental suffocation, as her mother was now claiming, when her tiny body was stuffed upside down in the trash can? An autopsy would soon provide what a forensic pathologist called a “disturbing” answer.
“This was not (as Megan Boswell claimed) an accidental asphyxia,” Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan testified Friday. “The manner of death was a homicide.”
‘No love like the love from your child’
Megan Boswell is set to stand trial in February 2023 on charges including felony murder in the death of the child she once called her “purpose” and “a reason to wake up every day.”
“You can say whatever you want about me being a young mom, but I promise you my life is so much better with this angel,” she wrote in a September 2019 Facebook post. “My life wasn’t ruined when I had her, she gave me a purpose and a reason to wake up every day and to better myself. There’s no love like the love from your child!”
Until Friday, the cause and manner of the toddler’s death had been kept under wraps. The indictment served up by a Sullivan County grand jury in August 2020 had alleged only that Evelyn died as the result of aggravated child abuse or, in the alternative, aggravated child neglect.
The toddler was first reported missing in early February 2020 by her grandfather, who told authorities the child had not been seen in more than two months.
When detectives with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office asked Megan Boswell, then 18, about her daughter’s whereabouts, the teenage mom initially insisted she was in the care of her 19-year-old father, Ethan Perry.
Megan Boswell next accused her drug-addicted mother, Angela Boswell, of taking the child to a campground in Mendota, Va., and leaving her there. A search of campgrounds there put the lie to that claim.
The teenager trotted out another story to both authorities and the media, claiming the toddler was safe with people she wouldn’t name, before finally admitting to the TBI weeks after the disappearance that the child was dead.
“She claimed that it was an accidental death, that she and her boyfriend at the time were sleeping in bed with (Evelyn) and when they woke up that morning that she was unresponsive, that she had been smothered,” Fraley testified Friday.
The agent said Megan Boswell conceded she had disposed of the child’s body in a trash can but wouldn’t tell authorities where to find it.
‘The whole case is disturbing’
Mileusnic-Polchan, who serves as chief medical examiner for Knox and Anderson Counties and is an expert in fatal child abuse cases, testified at Friday’s hearing that Evelyn was alive when she was “tightly” wrapped in a fleece blanket, placed inside a trash bag and shoved head-first into the trash can found inside the playhouse.
“The disposal of this child was remarkable,” the forensic pathologist testified. “She was sort of compressed in the can … (in an) accordion-like position. There was a severe overextension of her head and neck … an extreme extension. (The blanket) was not just haphazardly placed (around her body). It was tightly wrapped (to) prevent her from breathing … The blanket left imprints on (Evelyn’s skin).”
Mileusnic-Polchan said Evelyn’s head was pressed backward against her back, and her face was pressed against the side of the trash can. Her knees were bent into her chest, and her legs and feet were lodged against her buttocks, the pathologist testified.
Evelyn was dressed in a purple onesie with penguins on it and a diaper. The onesie, Miliesnic-Polchan testified, was unzipped, “so this was not a child dying in her sleep.”
“She’s too old for that,” Mileusnic-Polchan said of the accidental suffocation claim. “She’s too big for that.”
The forensic pathologist was summoned to testify Friday to explain to Sullivan County Criminal Court Judge James Goodwin why she believes jurors should be allowed to see photographs of the dead child taken as her body was removed from the trash can and unwrapped layer-by-layer.
Attorney Brad Sproles, who represents Megan Boswell, insisted the photographs were so gruesome that jurors might convict his client solely as an emotional reaction. Under cross-examination by Sproles, Mileusnic-Polchan acknowledged a close-up photograph of Evelyn’s face was “disturbing, but I think it’s important to show how (tightly-confined) her face was.”
But when Sproles repeatedly pressed her to label all the photographs as “disturbing,” the medical examiner pushed back.
“The whole case is disturbing,” she said.
Goodwin ultimately ruled that the close-up photograph of Evelyn’s face was so haunting that it might well prejudice jurors and cannot be used at trial. But Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus convinced Goodwin to allow jurors to see nearly a dozen other photographs taken after Evelyn’s body was discovered.
Staubus is seeking a sentence of life without parole if Megan Boswell is convicted of felony murder in the case. Citing intense pre-trial publicity afforded the case, Sproles is asking Goodwin to move the trial outside Sullivan County. A hearing on that motion is set for Dec. 16.
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