DEATH BY LETHAL REJECTION
On March 18, 1992, Joquitta Palmer neatly completed a handwritten application to the State of Arizona.
"We want a sibling for our son," the 29-year-old woman printed. "We know there are a lot of unwanted children and we want another one to love."
She and her husband, Cleveland, wanted to adopt a healthy, black baby girl. Asked to describe what they "could not accept" in a child, Joquitta Palmer wrote four words: "Mentally disturbed, drug baby."
In June 1993, the state Department of Economic Security approved the Palmers as the potential adoptive parents of TaJuana Davidson. That month, the 3-year-old joined the Palmers and their 9-year-old son, Brandon, at their Casa Grande home.
She was a playful child, full of laughter. But TaJuana also suffered from a variety of maladies. She was hyperactive and a slow learner. Ear infections plagued her, and a bad hip caused her to limp.
TaJuana was exactly what Joquitta Palmer said she didn't want--a "mentally disturbed, drug baby" born to a cocaine-addicted Phoenix woman. TaJuana died violently after less than five months at the Palmers' home by what pathologists termed "blunt-force trauma to the head."
The child had been beaten untold times. She had suffered a broken shoulder and had a black eye. Bruises covered her entire body. An autopsy revealed brain contusions, caused by at least seven separate blows.
Police investigators didn't know if TaJuana's murder had been intentional.
But they did know that their best suspects--really their only suspects--were Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer.
A Case Dies
The murder of a child demands resolution and justice more than any other crime. TaJuana Davidson's brutal death struck a nerve with Arizonans.
But months passed without a peep out of Pinal County prosecutors. Then, two weeks ago, deputy county attorney Sylvia Lafferty said publicly it was impossible to say who killed TaJuana.
Thus, her office would not be prosecuting anyone for the homicide.
"Maybe some evidence will pop up someday," Lafferty told a Valley daily newspaper, "but, for now, the investigation is closed."
Lafferty's refusal to pursue the case infuriated investigators who knew of the vastly inconsistent statements the Palmers made to authorities questioning them.
And there was a tantalizing whispered conversation between Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer hours after TaJuana died. Casa Grande detectives secretly taped Joquitta telling Cleveland to contact a cousin, Janet Palmer, after the police were done with them.
"Tell her tell Brandon, 'Don't say nothing,'" Joquitta said. "Cause he could get everybody in trouble, he say one wrong word."
In the same conversation, Cleveland asked his wife a chilling question: "They didn't break you, did they?"
A day after media statewide reported Pinal County's decision not to prosecute, Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods announced he'd look into the case.
Months before, New Times began its own investigation into TaJuana's murder. The newspaper obtained police transcripts, psychological reports and other previously unreleased documents, and interviewed some two dozen people. Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer declined to discuss the case.
Among New Times' findings:
Ample legal precedence shows Pinal County prosecutors could have tried the Palmers under Arizona's felony-murder and child-abuse laws. Prosecutors around the state say the laws are designed to take these kinds of cases into account by holding witnesses to child abuse as culpable as the abuser.
A state "adoption specialist" conducted a slipshod background investigation before recommending the Palmers highly as adoptive parents. He apparently didn't know Casa Grande police had investigated Cleveland Palmer in 1989 for having sex with his then-teenage daughter--or that his own agency had substantiated the allegations.
Several family members say they saw Joquitta Palmer beating TaJuana Davidson in the months before the child died. They describe a hot-tempered woman who ruled her roost with an iron fist.
TaJuana Davidson was removed by state caseworkers and Juvenile Court officials from a safe foster home in Wickenburg, mainly because she was black and her foster mother was white.
In June, prosecutor Sylvia Lafferty wrote in a confidential letter to the Palmers' attorneys that she considered Brandon Palmer, now 10, a murder suspect. Lafferty didn't elaborate, and those familiar with the case say it's extremely unlikely the boy was more than a bystander to abuse.
Pinal County's inept handling of the case was just the latest example of the official incompetence and cowardice that haunted TaJuana's life and death.
TaJuana was born at Glendale's Thunderbird Samaritan Medical Center on March 7, 1990. She arrived six weeks prematurely, and weighed only three pounds, four ounces.
Her mother had been taking cocaine during her pregnancy, and didn't know for certain who the baby's father was.
TaJuana Joyce Davidson, as her mother named her, was deemed ready to go home a week after she was born. But the baby had no home to go to. By then, Phoenix police had arrested her mother for violating probation on a cocaine conviction.
TaJuana became another waif in Arizona's legal wilderness, starting a pathetic journey from foster home to foster home as a ward of the Maricopa County Juvenile Court.
In mid-1990, a Phoenix woman named Doris Stovall offered to take custody of TaJuana, after the baby's mother named Stovall's son as TaJuana's likely father. Paternity tests showed that wasn't the case, but Stovall didn't drop her offer.
But because she wasn't licensed as a foster-care provider and wasn't TaJuana's blood relative, DES wouldn't allow Stovall to take the baby.
In late 1990, the agency moved TaJuana into a new foster home. Caseworkers allowed TaJuana's mother to have supervised visits, in part because she'd attended parenting classes in jail and had joined Narcotics Anonymous.
But TaJuana's mother soon slipped back into the drug world. In July 1991, she took steps to relinquish her parental rights. Finding someone to adopt TaJuana became the order of the day.
But things don't happen overnight in Arizona's child-welfare system, and TaJuana moved into yet another Valley foster home. The baby's new "mom" bemoaned TaJuana's low level of development and behavioral problems.
It didn't work out for TaJuana there, and, in December 1991, DES placed her with Laetitia Bertolucci. For the next year and a half, TaJuana's life was as stable and positive as it would ever be.
By all accounts, Bertolucci, a veteran foster mother from Wickenburg, loved TaJuana as if she were her own.
TJ, as everyone called the child, was a handful. "She could be obnoxious; she could throw little fits," Bertolucci tearfully told a Casa Grande police detective after the girl's death.
But TaJuana was making strides, inch by inch. Then, in the fall of 1992, TaJuana's race suddenly became an issue.
DES officials say they have changed a policy giving preference to adoptive parents of the same race. These days, a spokesperson says, race is but one factor in the agency's decision-making process.
But it was different in 1992. Laetitia Bertolucci is white, and TaJuana was black. That was enough for DES and Maricopa County Juvenile Court officials to fret about.
In September 1992, TaJuana's caseworker received a directive from the court.
"Contact Black Family and Children's Services to expedite the search for a culturally appropriate home for this child," the directive said. "It appears that this child is doing extremely well in her present placement. But for the fact that it is not culturally appropriate, this Court would encourage continued placement."
In another wing of DES, workers were hunting to match an adoptive child with a black couple from Casa Grande named Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer.
The process of adopting a child is time-consuming and tedious for all concerned. Potential adoptive parents must answer pages of personal questions, including descriptions of how they discipline children already in their care. They must undergo a "home study" by DES.
By July 1992, the Palmers convinced adoption specialist Michael Celaya, then of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), that they were superior candidates.
Both had steady, decent-paying jobs, Joquitta as a day-care worker in Casa Grande and Cleveland as a handyman in Chandler. Joquitta was also taking classes in Child Development at Central Arizona College.
The Palmers had long ties to their community, and they attended church regularly. They expressed warm feelings about each other, their son, Brandon, and their extended families.
Joquitta was a trim woman with sparkling-white teeth and a seductively warm manner when it suited her. Talkative, she repeatedly told Michael Celaya how much she wanted a daughter. She was unable to bear any more children.
At 42, Cleveland was quieter and more passive than his younger go-getter of a spouse. He often wore sunglasses to hide a bad eye, which gave him a somewhat standoffish appearance. Cleveland was known to take orders well, from his employers and from his wife.
Had Michael Celaya done his homework properly, he would have found many skeletons in the Palmers' closet, including the story of how the couple had gotten together.
Cleveland Palmer left his first wife, Tiny Mae Mitchell, for her sister, Naomi Rutledge, in the 1970s. He then got involved with Naomi's daughter, Joquitta. She was 16 at the time; he was in his late 20s.
There was much more.
Tina Palmer, Cleveland's daughter by his first wife, accused him in February 1989 of having had sex with her a few years earlier. Tina's allegations led to well-documented investigations by Casa Grande police and the state's Child Protective Services agency.
When push came to shove, the young woman--then in her teens--declined to press criminal charges against her father. But in June 1989, CPS revoked the Palmers' license to operate a day-care business after it "substantiated" the sexual-misconduct allegation against Cleveland.
Not a word of the revelations appeared in Celaya's glowing, 18-page report. Rather, the Palmers seemed to enchant the adoption specialist, who now works as a juvenile probation officer in Pinal County.
"This worker has found it a privilege visiting in the home with Mr. and Mrs. Palmer," Celaya gushed on July 20, 1992. "They are both secure, sincere individuals who share a genuine love of children. . . . It is my impression they would do well with another child of their own."
Celaya characterized the relationship between Cleveland Palmer and his daughter Tina benignly: "Cleveland states he and his daughter have had the best relationship and this has continued to this day."
Celaya's report bore scant resemblance to the miniautobiographies the Palmers prepared for the state.
"They do not believe in spanking," Celaya wrote, "as they feel this degrades a child and does not solve problems."
That's not how the Palmers put it in their applications to Celaya's agency.
"We both discipline," Cleveland Palmer scribbled when asked how they punished their son, Brandon, and who did it. "He get spanked when needed, and grounded."
Cleveland detailed his own father's approach toward corporal punishment: "[Daddy] whipped us when we were small. I have no complaints. If my younger set of brothers and sisters would have had him a little longer, they'd have better views on life." Joquitta Palmer got to the point about her methods of imposing discipline: "Spank and ground."
On July 27, 1992, the State of Arizona certified Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer fit to adopt a child.
TaJuana Becomes Brianna
Don't you think that it is great
That your mother has so much faith.
To know that God answers prayers
He knows that I'll love you and always care.
And as we grow closer to one another,
Many memories we will share
Because I always knew you'd come.
My faith was always there.
--Faith," by Joquitta Palmer, early 1993
Life was sweet for TaJuana Davidson during her 18 months in Wickenburg.
But by early 1993, finding adoptive parents for TaJuana was on the state's front burner. At a February meeting held at foster mom Laetitia Bertolucci's home, the subject of TaJuana's race again came up.
"Discussed TaJuana's interacting with ethnic peers and its effect on her growth development," read a DES caseworker's notes from the session. "This is not possible in Wickenburg."
In May, DES had decided to place TaJuana either with the Palmers in Casa Grande or with a Yuma couple.
Joquitta Palmer wasn't done schmoozing Michael Celaya, the adoption specialist. She sent Celaya poems and letters to further convince him to go to bat for her.
"I am still praying for my daughter," Joquitta wrote as the state was making its decision. "By the time she arrives she will have a book of handwritten soul-thought poems all written by her adopted mother."
But on May 14, 1993, the state awarded TaJuana to the Yuma family, because of its experience with developmentally disabled children.
Now 3, TaJuana had the motor and communication skills of a 2-year-old, according to a preschool case plan. Her cognitive skills placed her at the "mildly to moderately retarded" level.
All things considered, TaJuana was doing well: Bertolucci later told police that TaJuana had never suffered a "seizure" while in her care, wasn't anemic and didn't bruise easily. The Palmers insist TaJuana suffered from these ills before she died.
Ten days after getting the news about TaJuana's placement, the Palmers got a thrilling phone call. After mulling it over, the other couple had decided against adopting TaJuana, because they weren't certain they could handle her special needs.
The Palmers' guardian angel, Michael Celaya, cinched the deal for the Casa Grande couple in a June 1, 1993, report.
"It is felt that the Palmers have the personal attributes one would look for in a parent," Celaya wrote to his supervisors. "They make time for each other and appear to highly value their marriage, family and God. It is felt a child would be fortunate to be placed with this couple and their son."
The Palmers met TaJuana for the first time one week later, at a Peter Piper Pizza in Peoria. Foster mother Laetitia Bertolucci was there, as was Michael Celaya and another DES caseworker. After trial runs the state deemed successful, TaJuana moved in with the Palmers permanently at the end of June.
A New Life
Transitions between foster parents and potential adoptive parents can be difficult and painful. Caseworkers try to ease things by encouraging dialogue between the parties.
But Laetitia Bertolucci says Joquitta Palmer kept her distance from the start. The two spoke on the phone only rarely--Bertolucci says she never spoke with Cleveland.
"The conversations were that TJ was a big girl, so they took her diapers away and they made her go potty," Bertolucci told detectives after TaJuana's murder. "The conversation was that she did not need her bottle, so they took her bottle away. She was a big girl and did not need her Mickey Mouse night-light. . . . She did not need speech therapy, she did not need occupational therapy, she did not need physical therapy, because she was a normal child."
TaJuana's caseworkers couldn't have agreed more with Joquitta. An internal DES memo in August 1993 called TaJuana's progress at the Palmers' "remarkable," surpassing the state's expectations.
That month, a bout with tonsillitis landed TaJuana at Chandler Regional Hospital. The treating physician, John Chiles, later told police he had seen nothing at that visit or during a follow-up that raised suspicion of child abuse. But he diagnosed TaJuana as anemic, and prescribed an iron supplement. On October 5, DES caseworker Donna Churchill accompanied the Palmers and TaJuana to "Child Find," a school program that evaluates the learning levels of children.
Joquitta filled out a lengthy check list about TaJuana:
Under "Seizures," she wrote "No."
Under "Physical Impairment," she wrote "No."
Under "Accidents and Falls," she wrote "No."
Under "Temper Tantrums," she wrote "Yes."
Under "Appetite," she wrote "Poor."
The latter would have shocked TaJuana's former foster mother, Laetitia Bertolucci. "She ate as much as a man could eat," Bertolucci says. "She could eat two Happy Meals instead of one."
But Joquitta Palmer seemed untroubled.
"I have no concerns," she wrote on her "Child Find" form. "She acts like a normal child."
DES caseworker Churchill noticed something that day that became important in light of what happened less than a month later.
The bruise on TaJuana's face wasn't particularly nasty, but it demanded an explanation. Joquitta told Churchill it had been caused by a fall.
Churchill's case file indicates she found Joquitta's explanation "reasonable." She apparently hadn't noticed Joquitta had just responded "no" to the question of TaJuana's accidents and falls.
An upbeat DES interoffice memo cited the "Child Find" evaluation: "TaJuana's development is within the normal range at this time and there is no reason to have further evaluation.'"
The memo ended on a self-congratulatory note: "Talk about progress!!!"
A few days later, Joquitta surprised Laetitia Bertolucci by inviting her to visit TaJuana at a Phoenix church revival scheduled for November 7.
Bertolucci happily accepted. Joquitta followed that call with a letter.
"As I told you on the phone," Joquitta wrote, "Brianna is fine. Mental, physical and social. She is not retarded. The tests proved what I already knew. She is everywhere a 3-year-old should be . . . a bit higher in some areas."
On October 22, caseworkers spent two hours at the Palmers' home. Brandon and TaJuana were there, on their very best behavior.
The once-hyperactive TaJuana was "sitting poised in her little chair in the middle of the living room," caseworker Donna Churchill wrote, "knees together, hands folded in her lap. She was dressed like a little doll."
Eleven days later, and before her longtime foster mother would have seen her at the Phoenix church, TaJuana Davidson was dead.
A Child Dies
At 10:20 p.m. on November 2, 1993, paramedics responding to a 911 call from Joquitta Palmer rushed to West Tulip Place in Casa Grande. She'd calmly explained to a police dispatcher that her daughter wasn't breathing.
The Palmers directed the paramedics to TaJuana's bedroom.
There, the two men saw something neither will ever forget.
TaJuana was on her back in bed, eyes closed, her head resting on a pillow.
"The covers were pulled up and folded back," recalls C.J. Palmer, who isn't related to Joquitta or Cleveland. "Just like you would put a little kid to bed."
She was wearing a nightshirt and underpants.
TaJuana wasn't breathing, but C.J. Palmer did detect a slight heartbeat. He checked for a carotid pulse, but couldn't find one.
Paramedic Jim Abner observed much in the next crucial moments. He saw Cleveland Palmer standing to the side, mute and expressionless. As usual, Joquitta was doing the talking, chattering about, of all things, not being able to find her AHCCCS card.
"Being that emotionless about it," he says, "worrying about the AHCCCS card and payment, which is what you should be worrying about last if your kid is dying on you."
Abner saw tree leaves on the living-room floor of the tidy home. In the bathroom, a tree branch was leaning against a wall.
He says Joquitta Palmer immediately told him TaJuana had suffered a seizure in bed and had fallen to the floor. Joquitta said she had tried to awaken the child. When that failed, Joquitta said, she'd carried TaJuana into the bathroom and bathed her before dialing 911.
Abner is adamant that Joquitta Palmer told him she had not performed CPR on TaJuana.
Cleveland Palmer told a Casa Grande cop at the scene that TaJuana had first gotten sick in the bathroom. She'd been acting ill for about three days, Cleveland said. The couple had heard her whining and yelling in the bathroom, and Joquitta had gone to see what was up.
At that moment, he continued, TaJuana had suffered a seizure and collapsed onto the bathroom floor. Cleveland said Joquitta had carried the child into the bedroom and performed CPR before dialing for help.
Joquitta Palmer rode in the ambulance to Casa Grande Regional Medical Center. Cleveland stayed behind with Brandon and police officers.
C.J. Palmer says he could see TaJuana much better in the ambulance light than at the home. He noted the multiple bruises and the girl's black eye. Joquitta accounted for the bruises by telling the paramedic that TaJuana had scratched herself. C.J. Palmer said nothing. Some of the marks looked fresh to him; others appeared older.
Emergency doctors at the hospital worked frantically to revive TaJuana.
Hospital social worker Beth Sidman chatted with Joquitta in the lobby. Joquitta didn't seem at all upset, Sidman told police.
"She said that the baby fell off the toilet," Sidman recalled. "She did not know what happened."
TaJuana Davidson was pronounced dead at 11:29 p.m.
Joquitta phoned Cleveland back at the house with the news. Casa Grande police allowed him to drive alone with Brandon to the hospital.
There, the Palmers asked to see TaJuana's body. As Brandon hugged his mother tightly, the trio--observed by hospital personnel--stepped into the room where the little girl's body lay.
Joquitta cried briefly, then pointed to the landscape of bruises on TaJuana's body. Girl must have scratched herself, Joquitta said to no one in particular.
Cleveland Palmer said little, but he had one surprising request. An x-ray technician had taken a picture of TaJuana's right shoulder blade, which had been fractured.
Cleveland asked to see it. Those who were present say he looked at the x-ray as if he were looking at a menu.
Dr. Katherine Drake had heard Joquitta's scratching-herself explanation at the hospital, and didn't believe it for a second. She spoke with Casa Grande police detective Mike Glaser, who would head the investigation.
The detective ran the dead child's fingernails across the back of his hand. They didn't leave a mark.
Dr. Drake pointed out several long bruises on TaJuana's stomach. They looked the same as the numerous marks on her legs, and appeared to have been inflicted by an object of some sort.
Glaser also saw TaJuana's blackened eye and areas of swelling at the hairline.
The veteran cop knew he was looking at a homicide victim.
Detective Glaser awoke the Palmers at about 3:30 on the morning after TaJuana's death. The police had told the couple they couldn't stay at their home that night, so they bedded down at Joquitta's mother's place.
Glaser told Cleveland Palmer he wanted to talk with them immediately. Cleveland said they'd be at the police station in a half-hour.
Glaser spoke first with Cleveland. The child had spent much of the morning at Janet Palmer's home in Casa Grande, Cleveland stated. He'd picked her up around noon, and had taken her to the day-care center where Joquitta was working.
The Palmers had then taken TaJuana to the Coolidge home of Joquitta's grandparents, Dorothy and Willie Rutledge. Joquitta and Cleveland had gone to the courthouse in Florence to file papers related to TaJuana's adoption. Finally, they had collected TaJuana from the Rutledges and gone home for the evening.
What Cleveland told Glaser about TaJuana's collapse differed greatly from what he'd said to the cop at the scene. In his second version, Joquitta had been combing TaJuana's hair in the living room when the girl had gone limp.
This time, Cleveland said, Joquitta had carried TaJuana to the bathroom and sat her on the toilet. Then she had started to perform CPR on the child.
TaJuana "was just howling," Cleveland told the detective, "and [Joquitta] told her, 'Quit that yelling.'"
Cleveland tried to explain some of the many bruises on TaJuana's body: "Probably she got a whipping or a spanking a day before. Sometimes it shows up, you know. . . . Gonna be mad at them, just give them a little whooping--just a little. She always usually doing something to get in trouble."
Glaser asked Cleveland if Joquitta ever used a belt on the girl.
"She use a belt," Cleveland replied.
As for the branches found in the house--the "switches," as Glaser called them--Cleveland said they were used to punish Brandon, not TaJuana.
"Belt don't bother him, so we use a switch," Cleveland said.
Joquitta Palmer's story differed in many respects from her husband's.
She said she had washed TaJuana's hair after dinner, and had given her a bath. The girl was using the bathroom alone before going to bed, and Joquitta had gone in to check on her.
TaJuana had worn "a blank look on her face," Joquitta said, then went limp, and collapsed into a very small space between the toilet and the sink.
"She hit her head, that's how she got the scratches on the side of her face," Joquitta told Glaser.
TaJuana had bitten her tongue when she fell, and was bleeding profusely, Joquitta continued. Joquitta had performed CPR in the bathroom and tried to stem the flow of blood coming from the child's mouth.
"I did this for 20 minutes, and nothing happened," Joquitta told the detective, and then she had dialed 911.
TaJuana had sustained the black eye in another bathroom fall two days earlier, Joquitta added.
As for her son's whereabouts during the crisis, Joquitta said Brandon had slept through the whole thing.
She swore Cleveland was wrong, that she had never used a belt on TaJuana.
"She is too small for the belt," Joquitta maintained. "She has very soft feelings, so you could just verbally chastise her and she'd cry."
She said the tree branches inside the home were being used for school and day-care projects.
Glaser asked Joquitta to wait there as he fetched CPS caseworker Tom Molnar for his interview with her. A hidden tape recorder whirred after the detective left.
"I can't believe she gone, Lord," Joquitta Palmer said aloud. "Thy will be done. Thank You for letting us get to know her and her to get to know us. Forgive me, Father, if I've done anything wrong."
Joquitta stuck to most of her story during her interview with Molnar, but she admitted she'd never taken TaJuana to a doctor for her previous "seizures."
Joquitta had some questions for Molnar.
"What if they don't find nothing from the autopsy," she asked, hours after TaJuana's death, "like seizurewise or choking on her own mucus? Then what?"
Molnar said there are many different causes of death, but sometimes it's impossible to determine.
"Where does that leave me, 'unknown cause'?" Joquitta continued.
Molnar stammered a nonanswer.
Detective Glaser reentered the room and played the game a bit rougher.
"Your stories aren't the same at all," he told Joquitta. "It's a lot easier to tell the truth and remember the truth than it is a lie."
Glaser confronted her on her earlier avowal that she had never hit TaJuana with a belt.
"She may have gotten a lick or so with the belt," Joquitta now admitted, "but I didn't whip her with the belt."
Glaser touched on another key contradiction. Cleveland had said TaJuana had collapsed in the living room, while Joquitta was saying it had happened in the bathroom.
"Maybe she did lose conscious in the living room," Joquitta said, "but it wasn't long."
The detective allowed the Palmers to spend some time with each other in the interview room. He didn't tell them they were being taped, which certainly will become a legal issue if the case ever goes to trial.
The first words picked up by the secret microphone were Cleveland's.
"They didn't break you, did they?" he asked his wife.
Joquitta didn't say yes or no, but instead grilled her husband about what he had told detectives.
The couple went carefully over their respective stories.
"If the medical examiner says she died from physical abuse or something," Joquitta blurted out, "then I know we probably be arrested or something."
She then tried to reassure Cleveland.
"They ain't got no case on us," Joquitta said. "They so fucked up, they gettin' on my nerves."
The couple discussed their son, Brandon, who was staying for a few days at cousin Janet Palmer's home. Joquitta instructed Cleveland to tell Janet to keep the boy quiet.
"Cause he could get everybody in trouble," Joquitta said urgently, "he say one wrong word."
The young boy faced the policeman and started to talk. What Brandon Palmer told Mike Glaser provided more insight than anything his parents had revealed.
Brandon corroborated his mother's story that she had been combing TaJuana's hair in the living room. He also recalled his parents' asking TaJuana repeatedly if she loved them and wanted to stay with them.
"They was telling her to say everything, and she wouldn't," Brandon said, "and then [TaJuana] got mad, cause she had to say it over and over before she passed out. She wouldn't listen. . . . She liked Mom. She just didn't want to tell the truth. They didn't whip on her."
TaJuana then went limp and, as Brandon watched, Joquitta and Cleveland carried her to the bathroom.
"Mom did CPR on her, and nothing would happen," Brandon said.
Glaser asked the boy to be more specific. Brandon replied that he'd fallen asleep during the commotion and saw nothing. A few moments later, however, he carried on again as if he'd seen everything.
Brandon said TaJuana had bitten her tongue in the living room, not the bathroom, as his mother had indicated. In fact, he had gotten some ice for her at his mother's request.
Joquitta's attempts to revive TaJuana had failed, Brandon said. He described a dramatic and troubling scene:
"We took the Bible and we pray for her and it still didn't work. . . . After that, we went back in the rest room and we tried to do it again and then we just called 911."
As had his father, Brandon said TaJuana had collapsed two or three other times recently, but had quickly snapped back. One of the episodes, about a week earlier, had frightened the boy, and he had wanted to dial 911. His dad, however, had instructed him not to.
With the hidden tape running, Glaser allowed Brandon to spend a few moments with his mother.
"What'd they ask you?" Joquitta asked him immediately.
"They asked me if [we] get whoopings, and I said no," Brandon answered. "They say there was trees in the rest room and they said, 'Does you guys get whipped with them?' and I said no."
As dawn broke in Casa Grande that morning, Glaser told the Palmers they could leave. The next time he requested their presence at the police station, about 36 hours later, the couple demanded to see an attorney.
The result of TaJuana Davidson's autopsy was terse. She had died of "blunt-force trauma to the head."
Dr. John Howard's report concluded that the fatal injuries had been inflicted "probably 72 hours or more" before her death. TaJuana's bruises ranged from hours to days old. Her shoulder had also been broken as long as three days before she died, and would have been very painful, the report said.
Dr. Howard told Mike Glaser the shoulder injury could not have been caused by a fall from the toilet.
Detectives checked out anyone whose access to TaJuana fell within the three-day window of opportunity. In this case, that meant members of the Palmers' extended families.
What Glaser gleaned from them was stunning. Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer, it turns out, had a long history of violence toward children.
Christine Garcia, whose son Shawn is Joquitta Palmer's nephew, said she wouldn't leave her children alone with Joquitta. The woman had slapped Garcia's daughter so hard in a church once that it had left a deep welt. And she had also seen Joquitta grab TaJuana by the arms and shake her hard when the child acted up or laughed uncontrollably.
Cleveland Palmer's niece, Sheila Palmer, said she had personally felt Joquitta's wrath. Years earlier, Sheila said, Joquitta had struck her with a fly swatter, leaving welts on both arms.
Cleveland Palmer's daughter Tina--the young woman who had accused him of sexually molesting her--spoke with Glaser by phone from her new home in Southern California.
"She found excuses to beat me," Tina Palmer said of Joquitta. And the woman inflicted her beatings, Tina said, with "little planks" and whatever else she could grab.
Leroy Palmer, one of Cleveland's brothers, corroborated Tina's tales of violence. He remembered how he had confronted Joquitta and Cleveland years earlier after Tina came to his house with deep bruises and a bloody lip.
A pattern of violence was emerging.
Glaser contacted one of Cleveland's sisters, Mary, in California.
Mary told him the Palmers--Joquitta, Cleveland, Brandon and the Palmers' new daughter--had visited her in mid-July. One day, Mary Palmer said, TaJuana wouldn't eat her supper.
"So [Joquitta] jerks the little girl up from the table," she told the detective, "and just beat her real good. It's not a whipping, it was a beating, and then she shoved her and pushed her."
Later, Joquitta had told Mary Palmer of the incident, "If Brandon can survive, she can, too."
Frank Palmer, another brother of Cleveland, had spent time at the Palmers' home in Casa Grande that August. He, too, had seen Joquitta abuse TaJuana.
"She picked her up around the neck, was choking her and shaking her in the bathtub," Frank Palmer said, "because she'd wet on herself, and she wouldn't tell her mommy when she wanted to go to the rest room. The girl was scared of her." The detectives also needed to interview family members Janet Palmer and Dorothy Rutledge. Both women had baby-sat for TaJuana on the fatal day, Janet first and Dorothy later.
Mike Glaser talked to Janet Palmer twice. In the first interview, Janet said she hadn't noticed any injuries on TaJuana that day. Joquitta never more than spanked the little girl on her legs and butt, Janet added, and TaJuana hadn't cried on those occasions.
In a follow-up interview, Glaser asked Janet Palmer why she hadn't mentioned TaJuana's black eye in their first session.
"I forgot," Janet replied. "I just didn't mention it."
She seemed somewhat more candid in the second interview.
"Honestly, I don't know what to think," she said. "There is a lot of things that don't add up. It's like Joquitta don't have nothing to say, except for God's on her side and He's gonna take care of it. But they're gonna have to pay for it in the long run if they did it, cause I don't approve of no one hurting a child."
For reasons that aren't clear, the detectives spent far less time with Dorothy Rutledge. She said little more than that she had noticed TaJuana's black eye on November 2.
The Holy Ghost
State CPS caseworkers temporarily took Brandon Palmer away from his parents in the days after TaJuana's murder.
The agency asked the couple to recommend a family member to place the boy with. The Palmers recommended Joquitta's grandmother, Dorothy Rutledge.
A CPS caseworker and an independent observer went to the Rutledge home in Coolidge to see if Brandon's placement there would be appropriate.
The pair concluded Mrs. Rutledge would not be a proper custodian because, they suspected, she knew much more about TaJuana's demise than she was revealing.
Dorothy and her husband, Willie--who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease--were likely the last to see TaJuana alive other than the Palmers.
That made the couple, especially Mrs. Rutledge, potential prosecution witnesses.
But Mrs. Rutledge died suddenly on January 31, 1994. She was 65.
Hours later, workers found Willie Rutledge's body at a remote site miles from their home. He was 71. The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death was because of "dehydration," with no foul play suspected.
But coroners didn't do an autopsy on Dorothy Rutledge, and there are no police reports on her death. Remarkably, Casa Grande police investigating TaJuana's murder didn't learn about the couple's deaths until after the funerals.
Brandon Palmer's life was in flux after his adoptive sister's death. He stayed with Janet Palmer for a time, then moved briefly into a foster home.
In another inexplicable development in the case, CPS allowed the Palmers to take Brandon home just ten days after TaJuana's murder, even before caseworker Tom Molnar had completed a risk assessment of them.
Molnar's case notes indicate he was leaning strongly in the same direction as the Casa Grande cops--that Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer were responsible for TaJuana's murder.
His reasons for feeling this way included his stunning dialogue with Brandon two days after the girl died:
Brandon told Molnar that TaJuana would be brought back to life by the Holy Ghost, but only under the right circumstances. The boy said he and the spirit were keeping a secret: If Brandon revealed it, TaJuana wouldn't be reborn.
Brandon confided that TaJuana had spoken to him the previous night as he lay in bed. She wanted to know where she was. He told her she was in heaven.
Molnar's case notes of the interview concluded: "He is afraid if he tells what happened, his parents will go to jail."
Brandon is the boy Pinal County prosecutor Sylvia Lafferty listed as a murder suspect last month in a letter to the Palmers' attorneys. Tom Molnar later asked Joquitta Palmer about Brandon's extraordinary remarks. She replied that what went on between her son and the Holy Ghost was none of her business.
One of Molnar's missions was to assess whether the Palmers were a threat to Brandon's well-being. Despite what he knew about the family's violent dynamic, caseworker Molnar concluded Joquitta and Cleveland Palmer posed a "low risk" to their son.
"Parents appear to be responsible for the death of TaJuana Davidson, their adoptive daughter," Molnar wrote. "However, there's no indication that Brandon has suffered abusive treatment from his parents other than the ordeal he has experienced with the death of his adoptive sister."
Brandon returned home November 12, ten days after TaJuana died, news of which finally hit the media a few days after that. It came on the heels of 2-year-old China Marie Davis' murder at a foster home in Phoenix.
Sensing the heat, CPS officials quickly reversed themselves. On November 17, they again removed Brandon from his parents. The boy has been living at a foster home in the area ever since, though he is allowed to visit his parents in supervised settings.
Last December 9, a Glendale psychologist met with Brandon Palmer. The boy was talkative, and only seemed reluctant to discuss the form of discipline meted out by his parents. The psychologist asked Brandon to draw a picture of a family. He drew two children on one side of the page, two adults on the other. He identified the adults as a mom and dad, and the children as a brother and sister.
Brandon then drew a double line that separated the children from the adults, and encircled the quartet with what he identified as a flower.
Brandon completed the picture by drawing a heart in the upper-left-hand corner. Inside it, he wrote, "Love, Mom, Dad and sister."
A Case in Limbo
Several people who know Cleveland Palmer say he has aged years since TaJuana Davidson died eight months ago. He is considered by far the weaker of the couple.
"If he know that he gonna do some hard time, he'll come clean," his first wife, Tiny Mae Mitchell, told police after TaJuana's murder.
Joquitta Palmer is said to be out of work, though she has plenty to occupy her days. According to family members, at least one and perhaps more children of her aunt, Phyllis Rutledge, are living at her home on West Tulip Place.
TaJuana Davidson's body remains in cold storage in the morgue of the Pima County medical examiner.
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