Jury hears recorded conversation with police in Southworth murder trial

Defendant Donald Southworth, with Deputy Sheriff Lonnie Greene, entered the Fayette Circuit courtroom Wednesday for the third day of his murder trial in the death of his wife, Umi Southworth.
Defendant Donald Southworth, with Deputy Sheriff Lonnie Greene, entered the Fayette Circuit courtroom Wednesday for the third day of his murder trial in the death of his wife, Umi Southworth. HERALD-LEADER

Before officers found the body of Donald Southworth's wife, Southworth made several statements to police that he did not kill her.

Those details were revealed Wednesday during the second full day of testimony in Southworth's trial. Southworth, 49, is charged with murder in the brutal beating death of his wife, Umi, 44. The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday in Fayette Circuit Court.

Early Wednesday, jurors heard a recording made by police without Donald Southworth's knowledge after they arrived at his residence on June 9, 2010. Police were investigating the disappearance of Umi Southworth, who apparently was beaten sometime overnight or early in the morning, then hidden under a box spring and a rug in a "hobo camp" in a heavily wooded area near the Southworths' home, police said.

Donald Southworth, who had driven to Cincinnati in his wife's car to pick up his younger daughter, arrived at the fourplex on Meadowthorpe Avenue shortly after the first several officers.

Donald Southworth was nervous when he approached, said Lexington police Sgt. Todd Phillips.

"He said 'You found her, didn't you? You know she's hurt,'" Phillips testified.

Phillips said another officer then began recording the conversation using a digital recorder hidden in his pocket.

Phillips engaged Southworth in small talk on the apartment's front porch for nearly an hour.

On the recording, Southworth acknowledges that he is contradicting himself, asks whether he is "a suspect" and mentions the death of his wife before police found Umi Southworth's brutally beaten body.

Also on the recording, Southworth said: "I'm a suspect. I know how these things go."

Phillips said Donald Southworth was nervous, shaky and "meek" until police told him they had not located his wife, at which point he seemed more confident.

Defense attorney Russell Baldani pointed out that Donald Southworth made the initial missing person report after Umi Southworth didn't show up at work. He asked Phillips whether it was possible Donald Southworth seemed nervous because he assumed the worst when he saw the police cruisers at his house.

Phillips acknowledged that possibility.

Regarding Donald Southworth's statement that he was a suspect, Baldani said it was common knowledge that when a spouse goes missing or is killed, the first person police investigate is his or her partner. Phillips agreed.

And even though police didn't tell Donald Southworth his wife had been found even after officers located her that night, Baldani asked officers whether it was conceivable that Donald Southworth knew what was going on based on the number of officers at the scene, leading to the statements Don Southworth made about Umi Southworth's death before her body was found.

On the recording, Donald Southworth told officers his wife's keys and shoes were found in the yard. He spoke at length about a man he described as Umi Southworth's boyfriend, a Christian singer-songwriter she had met during events with their daughter, Almira Fawn Southworth, a child folk singer.

Since she met her boyfriend, she had become less interested in her husband and started losing weight, Donald Southworth said in the recording. He said he and his wife had been in the process of getting a divorce for about five years, but they were not hostile toward each other.

Umi Southworth texted her boyfriend all the time, he said, and would sneak off at night or go for walks in the neighborhood to make calls to him.

Donald Southworth described a situation where Umi Southworth got in a car and left him locked outside for a moment while she responded to a text message. It was obnoxious, but "it ain't no damn reason to kill no one over," he told officer Phillips before police found his wife.

Phillips told the jury that police took Southworth to police headquarters once his wife was found. They did not tell him his wife had been found, but Southworth continued to make statements about his wife's death.

The sergeant said Southworth told him: "I never killed my wife, officer. She should have stayed inside. This is going to mess everything up."

Gruesome testimony about the state of Umi Southworth's body when she was found dominated the trial Wednesday afternoon. Several officials said they were shocked to learn that the woman was showing signs of life after police had been at the crime scene for several hours.

Police officer Brett Marshal testified that he found Umi Southworth's body beneath a box spring at 7:45 p.m. on June 9, 2010. He said he saw no signs of breathing or movement; her skin tone was not normal; and there were specks of brain matter in her hair.

Later, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said he was taking photos of Umi Southworth's body while Deputy Coroner John McCarty held a flashlight over him.

"His comment to me was, 'Did she just move?'" Ginn said. Ginn said he then saw the woman move. According to Ginn, McCarty then said, "Oh my God, she just breathed!"

"At that point, I knew it was not a coroner's case," Ginn said.

Dr. Paul Kearney, a trauma and critical care surgeon at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, said Umi Southworth was deeply comatose when she arrived there about 11:30 p.m. He said she had two skull fractures, facial fractures, trauma to her chest that indicated she had been stomped or kicked, and kidney contusions. He said she had very rudimentary brain stem function. There wasn't much that could be done for her, he said.

Kearney said that the very few patients like Umi Southworth who do survive never regain consciousness. He said she was eventually taken off life support.

Diane Kearney, a nurse in the UK hospital's neurosurgery intensive care unit and Umi Southworth's primary nurse, said Umi Southworth's head was wrapped in gauze when she got to work the morning after Southworth was found. Police wanted to take photos of Southworth's wounds, so her head was unwrapped for the photos, Kearney said.

"I saw brain matter and I saw maggots," she said.

She said she called Ginn, and he advised her on how maggot specimens should be collected. Ginn testified that forensic pathologists told him to put the maggots in an aluminum tray with a piece of liver.

Former Lexington police sergeant Paul Williams, who was over the department's homicide unit at the time Umi Southworth was found, told jurors there was nothing to indicate that she had been assaulted somewhere other than where she was found. He said some of her clothing was found over a fence near the crime scene.

Ginn said that toxicology test results showed that Umi Southworth had no drugs or alcohol in her system.

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