In an opening statement to jurors Thursday in his second-degree murder trial, Errol Victor Sr. portrayed himself as a grieving father whose young stepson died six years ago because of “a mishap, a misfortune.”
But prosecutors contended that Victor and his wife, Tonya, played major roles in the boy’s death and are in fact guilty of killing 8-year-old M.L. Lloyd III, who was pronounced dead at River Parishes Hospital in LaPlace in April 2008.
After a six-year legal drama, the couple — who are representing themselves — and prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office finished questioning prospective jurors Thursday at 40th Judicial District Court in Edgard. By midday, a jury of 12 women and four men, including four alternates, was impaneled, and each side delivered lengthy opening arguments before the first witness was called.
The Reserve couple has been indicted three times in a half-dozen years for the killing and were at one time featured on “America’s Most Wanted” while trying to avoid facing trial.
“You never met this lady,” Errol Victor told jurors as he gestured toward prosecutor Julie Cullen, who is handling the case for the state. “She don’t know me. She’s trying to tell you about me.”
But Cullen, detailing the prosecution case for the jury, said she plans to call a range of witnesses who are familiar with the couple, including St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies who responded after Lloyd’s death, as well as doctors and hospital staff.
The first witness called was M.L. Lloyd Jr., the biological father of the young boy. Lloyd Jr. testified that he dated Tonya Victor in the late 1990s but that she moved suddenly and did not tell him where she was going with his son, whom he did not see in the years leading up to his death. In fact, the father testified that he learned of his son’s death from a reporter calling for comment.
But before that, Cullen detailed aspects of the Victors’ home life, including a brood of children who were home-schooled, and said M.L. Lloyd III had taken a beating over a stolen ice cream snack. “Things are going to get very emotional,” she told jurors, referring to the testimony to come.
For years, the Victors have maintained their innocence, saying young Lloyd suffered a severe asthma attack provoked by fighting with his brothers. Medical authorities have disputed that claim, suggesting the boy may have died hours before arriving at the hospital. “Asphyxia due to neck compression” was listed as the cause of death; an autopsy showed extensive bruising.
The case’s twists and turns have drawn widespread attention, particularly as the Victors hired and fired their attorneys nearly a dozen times, according to some estimates, ending up with the couple once again representing themselves.
The couple each had children from past marriages when they married: Errol Victor, a businessman and real estate developer, had six children; Tonya Victor, a stay-at-home mom, had five. Together, they added two more to the family.
In a recorded statement played in court years ago, one of Tonya Victor’s young sons said his stepfather typically withheld food from Tonya’s children, while his children could “eat anything they wanted.”
The same child testified that Errol Victor told several of the boys to hold young Lloyd down by the arms the night before he died, so they could beat him for taking ice cream without permission.
Errol Victor has denied that account and accused authorities of goading his stepchildren into testifying against him.
On April 1, 2008, Tonya Victor, along with the boy’s stepbrother, Errol Victor Jr., took the child to the hospital but quickly fled the emergency room, according to law enforcement.
Cullen, in her statements, described a chaotic scene at the hospital, in which the Victors arrived with an unconscious — and possibly already dead — child. She said the boy was dressed in his school uniform, which medical personnel were forced to cut off of him, revealing extensive bruising.
“They (the Victors) waited way too long to deal with medical issues with this child,” she said. By the time he arrived at the hospital, “there was no respiration, there was no pulse. He was cold to the touch.”
Cullen said jurors would hear testimony and be shown footage from the hospital that makes clear Tonya Victor didn’t stay there long.
Errol Victor, next in line for opening arguments, called Cullen’s version of events “their story,” describing it as a “horror story” like those by Edgar Allan Poe.
“We’re not going to present a story. We’re going to open up the doors and let you see our life,” he told jurors.
Victor took issue with many details that Cullen used in describing his family life. “The only way you can call me a stepfather is because I stepped in, and I stepped up,” he told jurors as he stood at the dais, using a tone that at times resembled a preacher leading his flock.
Errol Victor called his stepson’s death “an event, a tragedy,” and he denounced prosecutors as “malicious,” “vindictive” and “unfair.” But he often spoke in generalities, defending his decision to home-school the children and employing vague, sometimes rambling analogies.
His remarks drew several objections from prosecutors, who said the statement was closer to testimony than a preview of his upcoming defense.
Near the end of his remarks, Errol Victor said young Lloyd suffered from asthma, which he said likely played a key role in his death, though he acknowledged the child “was reprimanded that day.”
Tonya Victor addressed jurors after her husband, speaking in a soft tone and repeating phrases like “I will prove that” in an effort to dismiss allegations made by prosecutors.
“We are not bad parents,” she said at one point.
After the jury was impaneled, Judge Mary Hotard Becnel, who is presiding over the case, denied a defense motion seeking a change of venue.
It’s unclear whether the Victors will testify in their own defense. Both of their names were read by the judge from a list of potential witnesses, along with those of members of their family, doctors and law authorities in St. John.
Errol Victor Sr. initially was charged with first-degree murder, while Tonya Victor was charged with cruelty to a juvenile and being a principal to first-degree murder.
That indictment was dismissed after Tonya Victor allegedly acknowledged to sheriff’s deputies that she had hit Lloyd with a belt on the day he died.
Prosecutors then convened a second St. John grand jury, which returned an indictment against the couple in 2009, charging both with second-degree murder.
That meant prosecutors needed to prove the couple intended to inflict great bodily harm, but not necessarily to kill the boy. But another judge vacated that indictment because a St. John sheriff’s deputy serving on the second grand jury panel had worn a shirt advertising his employment with the department.
In April 2010, the couple was indicted for the third time.
The Victors were slated for trial in August 2011, but they fled on the eve of the proceedings and remained on the lam for eight months, during which they were featured on the television program “America’s Most Wanted.”
Becnel said the trial could last up to two weeks.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.