A reporters notebook…
Starns murder trial opens
ON TRIAL Peggy Sloan Starns is escorted by Bill Jacob, one of her lawyers, back to the Lauderdale County Courthouse after court dismissed for lunch Monday during jury selection. She is charged in the 1984 murder of 4-year-old Angela Schnoor. Photo by Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star
By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
April 16, 2002
The death of Angela Schnoor conjures visceral fear in Baby Boomers. Regardless of how it happened, 4-year-old Angela died because the supply of oxygen to her brain was cut off.
Suffocation, asphyxiation, smothering. The words are almost interchangeable. They are the bogeymen that made parents tie thin, clingy bags from the dry cleaners in knots before throwing them away and the reason those bags aren't thin and clingy anymore.
So insidious is the fear of child suffocation that police officers speaking in classrooms taught children not to play in abandoned refrigerators decades after latch-lock handles were banned. So universal that the sight of a discarded refrigerator still makes adults uneasy.
Not being able to breathe is such a frightening experience that you probably remember in detail every childhood mishap that knocked the wind out of you.
Angela Schnoor suffocated.
Step-mother indicted 17 years later
In the summer of 1984, Angela Schnoor's parents, Michael and Debbie, had been divorced for about three years. Both had remarried. Michael Schnoor's new wife was Peggy Lynn; Debbie had married a man named Tom "Bubba" Boswell.
Angela smothered during a visit to her father's house on July 28, 1984.
She had been going to eat dinner at her paternal grandparents' house. Michael had gone on ahead, leaving Peggy to bring Angela along when she woke up from a nap, but Angela never woke up.
Peggy called Michael home because Angela was not breathing. By the time the little girl arrived at Meridian Regional Hospital, her pupils were fixed and dilated, indicating serious injury to the brain. She was pronounced dead two days later.
Doctors at the time ascribed her death to suffocation, but could not determine how it happened. No charges were filed against Peggy Lynn Schnoor.
Debbie Boswell has worked ever since to have the case re-opened, visiting each Lauderdale County district attorney as he was elected, hiring investigators and writing letters to elected officials.
Last year, she convinced investigator Bill East of the attorney general's office to take another look. The investigation resulted in the indictment of Peggy Lynn Schnoor, now Peggy Lynn Sloan Starns, in July 2001 almost 17 years to the day after Angela died.
The trial opened Monday in Lauderdale County Circuit Court.
Attorney Joe Kieronski opened for the defense, telling the jury that Angela's death was accidental, but that her mother needed someone to blame.
Kieronski said three different investigations into Angela's death were inconclusive one conducted by the Meridian Police Department, one a year later by the attorney general's office, and one by an investigator Boswell hired.
The defense's expert witness, Dr. Rodrigo Galvez of Flowood, will testify that Angela's death was accidental.
Attorney Dan Self told the jury that Peggy Lynn Sloan Starns will testify.
In July 2001, when Peggy Lynn Sloan Starns was indicted, District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell made reference to a new piece of information that had turned the tide in the case.
The new information is the construction of the couch where Angela allegedly smothered.
Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Leary, lead prosecutor, said Dr. Gary Cumberland never saw a picture of the couch. Cumberland assumed Angela had been sleeping on a standard fold-out couch bed. In reality, the bed was more like a cot that folded length-wise to form a seat section and a back supported by the wall behind it.
Leary said Cumberland would have called the death a homicide in 1984 if he had known.
The state's circumstantial case against the defendant will also include an allegation that Peggy Lynn Sloan Starns planted evidence at the scene and told conflicting stories at the hospital that the child's arm was stuck in the couch, that her head was stuck and that she must have choked on something as she was jumping up and down.
Leary also noted the defendant's repeated insistence that no autopsy be performed.