MPD issues update on investigation into Baby Elena’s death, Lawson appears in Bell Co. Circuit Court

Published 5:04 pm Thursday, March 21, 2024

By Jay Compton


There were two significant developments in the Baby Elena case on Wednesday. Elena Hembree was the 17-month-old girl who died last July after suffering severe injuries at a Middlesboro home, including alleged sexual abuse.

Her mother, Erica Lawson, was initially charged with manslaughter — 2nd degree, failure to report child abuse — 1st degree, criminal abuse – 1st degree (child under 12), and wanton endangerment. After her indictment, Commonwealth’s Attorney Lisa Fugate amended the charge to 1st degree murder and is seeking the death penalty.

To date, Lawson is the only person facing charges for Elena’s death. Wednesday she appeared in Bell County Circuit Court via Zoom from the Bourbon County Jail during a pretrial conference before Judge Keith Nagle. Also, the Middlesboro Police Department issued an update to their ongoing investigation into Elena’s death.

Lawson’s attorney, Gregory Coulson, had filed a motion to either dismiss the indictment or strike the death penalty due to what he called the Commonwealth’s refusal to provide a complete Bill of Particulars in the case.

He also argued that the facts of the case alleged in the indictment did not rise to the level of a capital prosecution.

“It says failure to render aid and cramming the word ‘intentional’ in front of it does not save it. It describes wanton murder at best,” Coulson said.

He said the law covering this aggravating circumstance requires the killing to be intentional, not the conduct of failing to render aid.

“For six months now the Commonwealth has used the word ‘intentional’ and refused to give any clarification. Then, on the eve of this hearing, files what purports to be a Bill of Particulars, although it fails to actually state the basis for liability and simply recites the statute as to intentionality of conduct,” Coulson said. “We do ask the court to strike death as an aggravator so that the Commonwealth doesn’t benefit from its continued refusal to make clear this intentionality.”

Fugate argued that existing case law did not give the court authority to dismiss the indictment or remove the death penalty.

“The death penalty is a question for the jury,” she said. “I understand where the defense counsel is coming from, no one wants death as an option for their client. Regardless, it is the Commonwealth’s right if that aggravating circumstance is present to elect for the death penalty. . . then it goes as a question to the jury.”

She also said the Commonwealth had complied with all orders of the court in regards to the Bill of Particulars and that she would respond once the court had made its ruling.

Judge Nagle issued an order for the Commonwealth to respond to the defense’s motion for a Bill of Particulars within 30 days and allowed another 30 days for the defense to raise any issues with that response.

“The arguments about dismissing the indictment or striking the death penalty are a little bit premature at this point,” Nagle said. “As far as the motions to dismiss or strike the death penalty, they’ll be denied for the time being.”

The next pretrial conference for Lawson will be June 5 at 1:30 p.m.

Also on Wednesday, the Middlesboro Police Department issued the following update on their continuing investigation into Elena’s death:

“The Middlesboro Police Department wishes to inform the public regarding a significant development in the case involving the tragic death of Elena Hembree.

The investigation has been awaiting two crucial pieces of information to move forward with the case. Those two elements were the DNA Test Results and the Autopsy Report of Elena Hembree.

After an extensive investigation and long-awaited DNA result, the Kentucky State Police Forensic Lab found a lack of male DNA in their analysis.

Furthermore, after the release of the Autopsy Report (prepared by Kentucky Medical Examiners Office gathered by East Tennessee Children’s Hospital specifically the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit), it has now been revealed the cause of death of Elena Hembree was non accidental blunt force trauma.

We want to assure the public that the safety and well-being of our community remain paramount. We now have the essential and needed information to work this case with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since all documentation has been obtained to move forward in the manner of which this case deserves.

The Middlesboro Police Department, FBI, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s office are committed to seeing that justice is served for all parties involved in the tragic death of Elena Hembree.

As the case progresses, we urge the community to allow the legal process to unfold. We appreciate your understanding and continued support as we work diligently to ensure justice in this tragic situation.”