Colton Turner's mother, Meagan Work, spends 21st birthday in court
Colton Turner's mother spent her 21st birthday in a Travis County Court room. On Monday, clad in prison stripes and flanked by sheriff's deputies Work formally answered to the charges she is facing in connection with her son's death.
She pleaded "not guilty" to two first degree felony charges of injury to a child and injury to a child by omission; and "not guilty" to a second degree felony charge of tampering with evidence.
The toddler's father and his family sat stone-faced behind her.
"I feel like we knew she was going to do that," says Colton's Great Aunt Diane Battles of her response to the judge. But, she added defiantly, "we all know what they did."
The toddler's remains were found in September after a frantic search.
Work was arrested in September. Her boyfriend, Michael Turner, was already jailed on a prior charge. Police say in separate interviews, they both admitted to burying the child in July after he suffered a blow to the head. Work told police that the three of them had been staying in a motel room. When asked about the bump on her son's head, she told police he had hit his "head on an air conditioning unit inside of the motel room as a result of Colton being assaulted by Michael."
But court records show after Colton's remains were found in September, a witness came forward. He told police he saw Work and Colton in July. They were parked behind the building where Turner worked. The witness then said he saw Work slam her child's head against the door of the truck. There are cameras on the back of the building, but only those involved in the case know if it was captured on camera.
Despite an eyewitness account and possibly video evidence, Work has not been charged with murder.
"I think people are getting a little tied up on and wed to the idea of murder being the charge," says former Travis County Prosecutor Mindy Montford. "Injury to a child is the same felony degree as the murder charge." She adds, murder is much harder to prove, "you have to show that the person intentionally and knowingly caused the death."
When Work first appeared in court last month, Judge David Wahlberg ordered the state to offer her a plea deal before setting a trial date, which is likely to start in December.
In court on Monday, the state said they offered her fifty years for each felony charge, and twenty for tampering with evidence.
Montford isn't surprised that Work's team rejected it.
"60 years is really going to be the maximum, so to have a plea bargain for 50, a lot of attorneys would advise their clients to go ahead and go forward with the trial. And either try to get an acquittal or at least try to get it reduced for punishment," she says.
A reduced punishment that either Work or her boyfriend could try to get before jury selection gets underway in November.
"This is the time when you are going to see if it happens, one of these defendants will turn on the other."
Turner, is also facing injury to a child by omission and tampering with evidence charges. Well-known Austin Defense Attorney Bill White had been appointed to represent him. But White died last week. Former Travis County Prosecutor Steven Brand was appointed on Monday. "We're just looking to go through all of the evidence that the State claims they have against him and we will have access to the evidence against Meagan work," Brand said as he left the court room on Monday.
Brand also says there's more to the story than what's been reported, "When the media hears something, they are going to hear from one side and that's the police department. There's always another side."
Michael Turner was not in court on Monday, and has not been formally charged. Sources say he too was offered a plea deal. Neither his attorney or the State would comment. Brand will be back in court for another hearing in May though he says his client is not likely to appear.
Meagan Work's attorney, Darla Davis would not comment on her client either, leaving the court room through a back entrance. During her client's hearing, Davis did tell Judge Wahlberg she plans to file a motion to "suppress the evidence" against her client.
Montford says it's all part of pre-trial strategy.
"Any statement they made is going to be harped on at trial," she says referring to Work and Turner's interviews with police. "So any defense strategy is going to be right off the bat to try to get those statements suppressed, as if Meagan had never made any of them to begin with."
That hearing is scheduled to take place in July.
While Colton Turner's family waits for justice in the court room, they are one step closer to justice at the State Capitol. Colton's law is making it's way through the Senate.
"We feel like it's going to save a lot of children in Texas," said Great Aunt Battles.
HB 2053 would require state law enforcement to work with Child Protective Services to find children who fall of their radar.
"It's very important for law enforcement so that they can get involved early on and not have to wait like Colton," Battles said.