By Liz Shepherd
COLUMBIA CITY — After 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, a jury found Courtney Kincaid guilty on all charges in the death of 11-month-old Emma Grace Leeman.
The case has gained widespread attention in northern Indiana, spanning over the course of two years from the day the incident occurred to this week’s jury trial.
On April 12, 2018, Kincaid was babysitting Emma when Emma sustained severe injuries to her skull. Emma later died as a result of her injuries on April 13, 2018. The manner of death was ruled a homicide.
Jurors found Kincaid guilty on all three criminal charges, including aggravated battery, neglect of a dependent resulting in death and battery with death to a person under 14 years old.
Sentencing is set for 9 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 27. Kincaid was remanded into the custody of the Whitley County Jail after the trial adjourned.
Kincaid could face up to 110 years in prison. The advisory sentence recommended by the state is 77 1/2 years.
Prior to court proceedings beginning on Friday, July 31, a stipulation was read by Whitley Circuit Court Judge Matthew Rentschler to the jury regarding a statement made during Chelsey Vance’s testimony, which was given on Thursday, July 30. Vance is a Department of Child Services family case manager who was called to Parkview Regional Medical Center in Fort Wayne, where Emma was taken for treatment following the incident. In testimony, it was mentioned that Vance had interaction with Kincaid in June 2019 regarding a DCS allegation not related to Emma. The statement was ruled as unsubstantiated and made clear to the jury that that investigation had nothing to do with Emma.
Kincaid was called to testify by defense. In questioning, Defense Attorney Zach Baber asked Kincaid how she typically disciplined the children she babysat. Kincaid said she tried to keep her household as similar as she could to the child’s regarding punishment. Feedback from parents she babysat for was to usually have the child sit in timeout.
Kincaid met Sherry Leeman, Emma’s mother, through work and was hired by the Leemans to begin babysitting Emma in January 2018.
“She smiled with her eyes and her face,” said Kincaid. “The interactions we had…she was very cuddly and wanted to keep up with everybody else.”
A few days before the April 12, 2018, incident, Kincaid said that Emma had been running a fever and that she knew through text messages that Emma’s sister had also been sick with a fever. On that day, Emma was the first child to arrive for babysitting at the Kincaid residence. In total, Kincaid watched seven children at the residence that day, three of them being her own.
In her testimony, Kincaid said she let Emma sleep as much as she wanted to that day since she had been sick. When she noticed Emma waking up, she heard Emma coughing. As the coughing turned into gasping, Kincaid brought Emma to her shoulder and thought she was choking. Kincaid immediately called the police and did not call Emma’s parents until the ambulance had left the residence with Emma. Kincaid and her husband then went to the hospital where Emma was.
“I needed to be there for Emma and Emma needed me,” said Kincaid. “She was my kid. I didn’t know what was going on. I needed to be there for her.”
Kincaid said she consented to searches and interviews during the investigation because she did not have a reason not to let officers do what they needed to.
“I wanted to help provide them with what they needed to get them the answers they wanted,” said Kincaid.
She also said she expected to pass her polygraph test because “I knew nothing, I had no reason not to pass.”
“I wanted to do whatever means necessary to help them (law enforcement) find the reasons they were looking for,” said Kincaid.
When asked by Baber where her multiple stories about what happened to Emma came from, she mentioned dreams she had about the incident.
“Ever since that day, I wanted to know so badly what happened to her,” said Kincaid. “I would have repeated dreams, over and over, of how Emma would get hurt and it would always end with that 911 call. These dreams would be so different every time.”
Through cross-examination, Whitley County Prosecutor Daniel Sigler Jr. asked Kincaid if Emma suffered a massive skull fracture in her care. Kincaid said she didn’t.
“After five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 lies, you’re going to tell this jury you still don’t know what happened?” asked Sigler.
“That’s correct,” said Kincaid.
“Why can’t you tell the truth?” asked Sigler.
“I cannot answer as to why she has the injuries she has,” said Kincaid.
“This child had her skull bashed on a hard, flat surface,” said Sigler. “Courtney, you were fishing for information in that interview so you could tailor a lie. If your child received a skull fracture and died, and was forced to donate her organs, and a suspect in that case lied to officers for two years, failed a polygraph and then ultimately confessed with a story that exactly matches the medical evidence? Would you want that investigated?”
“As a mother, yes I would,” said Kincaid.
“You’re a mother of three? Sherry Leeman was too,” said Sigler.
In redirect, Baber asked Kincaid about the polygraph test and the stories she told to law enforcement about the incident.
“I do have to own up to those stories, but I’m not here for my actions,” said Kincaid. “I’m here for my words.”
“You’ve been given a great opportunity,” said Sigler in redirect. “You can make peace with Nick and Sherry. You can make peace with yourself. You can. It’s still possible. Why did you hurt Emma Grace Leeman?”
“I did not hurt her,” said Kincaid.
Kincaid answered multiple juror questions in her testimony and said on April 12, 2018, Emma was very lethargic and didn’t want to eat, which was unusual. When asked why she thought she failed the polygraph exam, Kincaid said her vasovagal syncope episodes might be a factor as well as the lack of sleep she had prior to the test. However, when asked by Sigler if she had an episode the day of the incident, she said she could have but that she wasn’t sure.
The defense also called Professor Alan Hirsch, who works at Williams College in Massachusetts, to testify on interrogations and false confessions. Hirsch has served as a false confessions expert witness in multiple trials. Baber asked Hirsch about the Reid technique, a process where investigators tell alleged suspects that the results of the investigation clearly indicate they did commit the crime in question. Hirsch said the technique works on guilty people but can also work to break down innocent people.
Hirsch also listed four conditions through which cases against a certain defendant are proven false: when DNA or scientific evidence allows for the suspect to be exonerated; when the actual culprit confesses; where a defendant confesses to a crime that was not actually committed; and when a crime was committed but evidence shows the person who confessed has an airtight alibi.
When asked by a juror if false confessions made by someone can change over time, Hirsch said that can happen on multiple occasions.
In rebuttal, the state called Indiana State Police Detective Andrew Mills and Whitley County Sheriff’s Detective William Brice for further testimony. Mills and Brice both said they did not use the Reid technique on Kincaid.
In closing arguments, Sigler referred to the incident as a five-act tragedy, focusing on the evidence he presented and doctors’ testimony.
“Five lies from the defendant,” said Sigler. “And we still aren’t done. She still hasn’t told the truth. Five doctors testified. And all of that to know this…the injury inflicted upon Emma Grace was violent, immediate and caused her death. For 412 days, the Leemans waited and wondered what happened to their little girl. Today is the day they get their answer.”
Sigler also focused on specific times, going from when Emma was dropped off at Kincaid’s residence to when the incident occurred.
“She wanted to help the investigation, so she lied about hurting the baby,” said Sigler. “The dreams made me do it. When are we going to get the damn truth? She’s not going to tell us. So we have to extract it from the evidence, from the facts. This is the work of an angry woman who lost control.”
Sigler then discussed two particular juror questions that Kincaid answered through testimony. When asked how Emma was injured, she replied that she didn’t know how to answer that question.
“‘What would you change about that day?'” said Sigler. “She looked right at you (the jury) and said ‘Nothing.’ I would change everything about that day! Maybe Emma Grace would be riding bikes. Maybe she would be here to hug and cuddle. Wouldn’t each of you, if a child suffered a traumatic injury in your care, wouldn’t you want to change everything about that day? It’s time for some truth and that’s right now. I didn’t charge her with murder. It’s about her basic failure of taking that child and smashing her skull, knowing that if you do that, death results. This is her utter failure to love and protect Emma Grace.”
In his closing arguments, Baber elaborated on the meaning of beyond a reasonable doubt, as well as confrontation and minimization tactics that he said occurred as officers interviewed Kincaid.
“We are not making the argument that Courtney was treated badly,” said Baber. “I do think Detective Mills was sincere. But the tactics he used broke Courtney down. How can you be called a liar over and over again before giving up?”
Baber also mentioned testimony from Dr. John Reed, a radiologist with Parkview Regional Medical Center, who testified that the injury occurred four to eight hours before a CT scan was completed on Emma at 1:20 p.m. With this argument, it would mean the injury occurred sometime between 5:20 and 9:20 a.m.
“This story of her snapping and making a last-minute decision doesn’t make sense,” said Baber. “She was a babysitter. She couldn’t even hurt a doll. Courtney herself, she wanted to know what happened to Emma. She willingly talked to police. Innocent people talk to the police. Guilty people lawyer up.”
He also argued that police and the prosecution struggled to find anything to charge Kincaid with. Baber argued Kincaid was eventually charged due to potential extreme pressure from Emma’s family, as well as the doctors’ evidence not being enough to say Kincaid caused Emma’s death.
“For not wanting to play the blame game, the defendant sure seems to blame everybody else,” said Sigler. “It took us 262 days to charge because we were working. You point a finger at somebody for killing a child, you’d best know what you’re talking about. And then to accuse the grieving parents…to be accused by somebody who fractured their daughter’s skull. This is the depth we have sunk to.”