By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; A01
At times sweet and always poised, a 9-year-old girl mesmerized a Montgomery County courtroom Wednesday with the harrowing story of life inside the home of Renee Bowman.
Bowman is accused of killing the girl's sisters and stuffing their bodies into a freezer for more than a year in a crime that stunned the region and cast a spotlight on D.C.'s child welfare agency, which had allowed Bowman to adopt the three girls.
Seated in a witness chair 20 feet from Bowman for 30 minutes, the girl testified publicly for the first time about what she and her sisters endured.
How many times, a prosecutor asked, did Bowman choke her?
"I can't remember, because she did it so often that I couldn't keep track."
"What would it do to you?"
"I couldn't breathe."
"I would faint."
The girl, who escaped by jumping out a second-floor window about 17 months ago, testified in the first day of Bowman's trial. Bowman is charged with killing two girls and abusing the third.
The 9-year-old survivor, who is being raised by foster parents in Calvert County, repeatedly referred to Bowman as her "ex-mother." She paid little attention to Bowman, seated to her left. Her eyes might have darted that way during cross examination, but for the most part she looked at the lawyers while she spoke.
Officials have guarded the girl's privacy as she tries to start a new life with new parents.
She said she saw Bowman, who kept the three girls locked inside a room, choke her two sisters: Minnet, who would be 12 now, and Jasmine, who would be 11. Detectives never learned exactly when they died but said it happened when the family lived in Rockville in 2006 or 2007, before Bowman moved to Charles County and then Calvert. The girls died of asphyxiation, according to their autopsies.
The surviving girl, wearing glasses and a bright red dress, said Bowman beat her with a bat and a white shoe. On the witness stand, she held a white teddy bear and pointed to places on the bear to show where she said Bowman beat her.
Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy sat down while the girl testified, doing so in a way that the child didn't have to look in Bowman's direction. McCarthy asked what the girls did inside the locked room if they had to go to the bathroom.
"Used the bucket," the girl said.
"Used the bucket. . . . Can you explain to these people, what did you mean by 'used the bucket?' "
"There was a bucket where we went to the bathroom because we weren't allowed out of the room to use the bathroom."
As wrenching as her testimony was, it was also interjected with comments that came across as charming -- her new foster father had bought her the teddy bear for Valentine's Day -- and funny. Even the judge, Michael J. Algeo, laughed at some testimony.
At one point, McCarthy tried to make her comfortable by asking her about books.
"How much do you read?"
When McCarthy asked her to speak up, he did so by telling her to use the voice she would use to call out to her mother. The girl looked at her new foster parent, who was in the front row of the courtroom, and smiled and waved.
"Hi, Mommy!" she yelled out.
Bowman, 44, sat calmly through much of Wednesday's proceedings showing little expression.
During opening statements in the morning, McCarthy said Bowman tortured all three children, yet was actively trying to adopt more and wanted a son.
After her arrest, Bowman told investigators that she smothered the two girls, McCarthy said.
"She stuffed them into this freezer," McCarthy said, as an image of a freezer was projected for jurors. The girls' bodies were stuffed into a chest-type freezer, which has a door on top.
Another photo projected for jurors showed an image after the freezer door was lifted. Jurors could see what looked to be a toe, coming through a dark, plastic garbage bag, surrounded by cubed ice. "We are actually looking at the body of Jasmine Bowman," McCarthy said.
McCarthy played to jurors an audiotape of Bowman's interview with Calvert detectives.
"The first one, the oldest one, was wrapped in a blanket, with ice thrown on top," Bowman told the detectives in the recording.
The second child "was probably wrapped up in a trash bag, a green trash bag," Bowman said.
McCarthy also read an e-mail Bowman had written to a friend while the family lived in Rockville.
"The girls, well, they're being themselves. They hate for me to be home, because I'm like the warden in the movie, the Green Mile, the guard used to walk the corridor and say, 'Dead man walking.' I do that when they're about to get in trouble. They hate it. Hahaha."
In his opening statement, defense attorney Ron Gottlieb spoke for about five minutes and didn't offer a specific alternative version of events. But he said there was more to the case than what McCarthy had said and implored jurors to keep an open mind.
"There is not enough evidence to convict Renee Bowman of first-degree murder," Gottlieb said.