Ten Weeks to Live

In the basement of the well-worn Kingman courthouse, the spectators who've arrived for the Clawson bail hearing are spilling out into the hall. As they wander around in the hall's narrow dead end, their faces are alert for word from within the closet-sized courtroom that a way has been found for them to crowd in and hear the details of Christine Clawson's death by starvation.

When a public defender announces a change in courtroom at last, the small throng shuffles up the old staircase to a room as large as the ones you see in TV trials. Bringing up the rear of the procession of about 35 are Marvin and Linda Clawson, who were indicted last October for the first-degree murder of their ten-week-old daughter. At the time of her death on October 10, Christine Clawson weighed eleven ounces less than she did at birth. Perhaps because her death came less than a year after Marvin Clawson was convicted of animal cruelty for starving his dog, the Clawsons have become the most notorious parents in Kingman. But you wouldn't know from their actions that their reputation is sinister. Dressed in bright-orange jail uniforms and ankle manacles, they are smiling and nodding at friends like greeters in a receiving line.

"All these people are here in support of the Clawsons, which just shows you how much support they have," someone is saying as she takes her seat in the new courtroom. "You could not have seen two prouder people when their baby was born. It's just sad what has happened to those kids."

It's sad to the onlooker not only because of the horror of young death, but because the Clawsons themselves, who are mentally handicapped, are sad figures. The Clawsons are sad but, according to the friends gathered here, they're not cruel. Once all are settled in their chairs, the Clawsons' friends and family members take to the stand one by one to insist that these two "slow" kids didn't plan their daughter's withering death. "When I seen that child, it was never dirty, it was never crying, and it always looked well cared for," says Ravenal Suratt, a friend. Suratt watched Linda Clawson feed Christine the afternoon before the baby died. How can a fed baby die from starvation?

How the Clawsons loved that baby! raves Norman Russell, the former senior pastor at Kingman Christian Church, where the Clawsons are members. Whenever they arrived at church, it was with the child and a full bottle; whenever they left, the bottle was empty.

"That baby always had a bottle in its mouth," says Merle Jenner, Linda Clawson's father.

If close observers count for anything, Marvin and Linda Clawson didn't want their baby to die. And yet despite the rah-rah mood in the courtroom, as the afternoon winds on, the story of Christine Clawson's little life begins to reveal itself as a set of nagging questions.

There is, for instance, the question of whether Marvin and Linda, whose learning disabilities and IQ's classify them as being of "borderline" intelligence--or only slightly better than retarded--are capable of caring for a child. Is it possible that their handicaps killed their baby?

Public defender Ken Everett would like the judge to think so, since incompetence would put the lie to the charge of premeditated murder. Everett calls to the stand Johnny Fleming, a former fellow worker of Marvin's at Martin Swanty Chrysler-Plymouth, where the two men once detailed cars. Fleming testifies that Marvin had a hard time finishing his work without inordinate supervision, and that the problem was severe enough to cause Fleming to doubt Marvin's potential as a parent. "I don't believe he would follow through [in caring for a baby]," says Fleming. "I don't want to hurt his feelings, but, no, I wouldn't trust him with my child."

The opinion doesn't wash with Mohave County prosecutor Eric Larsen. He tries to score the point that Marvin would have to be hugely dysfunctional to forget to feed his daughter--perhaps more dysfunctional than Marvin can possibly be, seeing as how he holds down a job and remembers to feed himself. "In the matters that are most important to Marvin Clawson, is he capable of taking care of them?" Larsen asks.

"I believe he is," says Fleming.
Larsen will elaborate later: "I think they are two people with limited outlooks for their future, but I think that they are quite capable of performing in society as productive people." He believes Christine died because her parents knowledgeably abused her.

There's the question of ignorance, an important one when talking about Linda Clawson, who gave birth and began raising her daughter totally without the benefit of prenatal care. The reasons are ironic, and damning of Arizona's cold-hearted political climate that doesn't make poor mothers a priority: Linda was married to a man whose $4-an-hour salary wouldn't stretch to cover doctors' fees, yet was unable to obtain help from AHCCCS in a state where people who dwell in near poverty are nonetheless considered way too well-heeled to qualify. The result was a sick baby and an ignorant mom: Before Christine's birth, Linda received no instructions in the care of a normal infant, much less one that needed to be tended with an extra dose of expertise.

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Deborah Laake