WESTON — A jury deliberated for only two hours Monday before finding Lena Lunsford guilty of murdering her daughter Aliayah, the toddler who vanished from their home in 2011.
Upon being convicted of four charges encompassing murder, child abuse and concealment of a deceased body, Lunsford, 35, remained as stoic as she did throughout the six-day trial.
Outside the Lewis County Courthouse, members of Aliayah’s extended family hugged and sobbed, recounting the days spent canvassing the countryside in search of the brown-eyed, 3-year-old girl when prosecutors claim her mom concocted an abduction.
“It’s been a long seven years,” said Aliayah’s aunt, Tina Smith, of Weston. “This finally gives an innocent child justice.”
The mercy phase is scheduled for Tuesday.
Aliayah is presumed dead, but her remains have not been located, which became the focus of Lena Lunsford’s defense.
“There’s not a scintilla, not a shred, of scientific or forensic evidence,” claimed defense attorney Tom Dyer. “There is reasonable doubt. Undeniably there’s reasonable doubt.”
Jurors were convinced, however, having heard tearful testimony from Lunsford’s teenaged daughters claiming their mother struck Aliayah in the head with a wooden slat from a bunk bed Sept. 23, 2011. When the child was found dead in her bedroom the next morning, the girls — ages 9 and 11 at the time — said their mom placed Aliayah in a clothes hamper and disposed of the body in a rural area known as Vadis.
Both girls claimed Lunsford ordered them not to tell police, a secret they kept for five years.
Prosecutor Christina Flanagan used closing arguments to chide Lunsford for being cold and emotionless throughout her daughters’ tearful accounts.
“She knew what she did was wrong. She knew that she killed her daughter,” Flanagan said. “The fact that a murderer disposes of a body does not entitle her to a not guilty verdict.
Earlier Monday, Dyer presented a scaled-back defense by calling only two witnesses. One was an IHOP manager from Louisiana who claimed she saw Aliayah in her restaurant last November, imploring investigators not to quit searching for the girl who vanished in 2011 and is presumed dead.
“There is no mistaking who she was,” Becky Disotell, of Houma, La., testified. “That is the little girl, and she is alive. If y’all put her as dead, then she’ll never be looked for again.”
Disotell said she knew nothing of the case six months ago upon noticing “a beautiful little girl, just scared and terrified” seated in an IHOP booth opposite a man in his late-50s man.
“The little girl’s demeanor was upsetting to me,” Disotell said. “You could tell something just wasn’t right. As a mother, you would know.”
Intending to snap a photo of the girl — who was adorned in a purple dress “that didn’t quite fit her” — Disotell returned with a phone only to discover the booth empty with cash left on the table.
Compelled to search a missing children’s database online, Disotell claimed she scrolled through photos and immediately recognized Aliayah Lunsford.
“This little girl looks the same as that 3-year-old picture, just taller and older. Her big, brown eyes — there’s no mistaking who it is.”
When four calls to the FBI ”seemed like I was getting nowhere,” Disotell reached out to defense attorneys.
That little girl, she kept staying on my mind and in my heart,” she testified. “If I knew now what I knew then, I would’ve grabbed her.”
Dyer’s other witness, former Harrison County sheriff’s deputy Pat McCarty, raised the possibility that a member of the Pagan’s motorcycle gang trafficked Aliayah as a drug payoff.
McCarty arrested Brian Mitchell in 2015 for DUI and claims that during a follow-up conversation, the former gang member spoke of being ordered to pick up the child.
“(Mitchell) informed me that he himself had purchased the child from the mother in Lewis County for a pound of badly cut heroin” and took the child to Harrison County, McCarty said. “(Mitchell) said he knew all about it, and he was willing to talk to me about it.”
In testimony for the prosecution last week, Mitchell said he knew no details about Lunsford’s disappearance and denied ever having the conversation with McCarty.
“This actually is the only theory that comports with every bit of evidence in this case,” Dyer argued in closing. “We’re going to have a discussion about it whether you think it’s nuts or not.”
That open-ended narrative didn’t persuade jurors, and Lena Lunsford never took the stand in an effort to refute her daughters’ allegations that she “hated” Aliayah at times and punished her more severely than the other children.
In the wake of the verdict, twilight raindrops fell outside and Tina Smith offered a question for Lena Lunsford:
“Why? Why did this have to happen to Aliayah? We would’ve taken her in. We’d have done anything. No child deserves this.”