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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin