Paula Johnson testified behind closed doors today for more than two hours, hoping to persuade a small-town judge to award her custody of her biological daughter, Rebecca Grace Chittum, who as a newborn was mistakenly given to the wrong parents at the University of Virginia Medical Center four years ago.
"Paula's strong, you know Paula," said her mother, Jewel Condrey. "She's got courage to fight. Rebecca's her daughter. Rebecca needs her mom. That's the bottom line."
Johnson, her lawyers and an entourage of friends and family arrived at the tiny courthouse at 8 a.m., ready to do battle in the first of several custody-related cases to grow out of the baby switch. Johnson has also filed papers to adopt Callie Marie Conley, the little girl she has raised as her own. Callie uses the surname of Johnson's former boyfriend.
When they passed at the court building door, Johnson did not speak to her adversaries--Rebecca's extended family who have been raising her since the young couple she knew as her parents were killed in an auto accident 16 months ago.
Participants inside the courtroom described the atmosphere as emotional but controlled. They said Johnson did not cry during testimony or cross-examination. Because of a judge's gag order, they declined to give details about testimony.
"I can say it was tense," said W. T. "Pete" Robey III, who represents one set of grandparents. Robey described his clients as "emotionally upset, strained, worried, scared."
Johnson's lawyers called 10 witnesses to the stand and rested their case after six hours. Cynthia Johnson, one of Johnson's lawyers (who is no relation to her), said the hearing went well.
Johnson's attorneys had been expected to attack the current custody arrangement--in which Rebecca shuttles among several households of her extended family in Buena Vista--and to argue that Johnson would provide a more stable home.
"That was a very emotional situation for everyone," attorney Johnson said after the hearing.
Lawyers for the grandparents said they and their clients are prepared to call 24 witnesses Friday and Saturday, including a child psychologist and a private detective. They will argue that Paula Johnson is an unfit mother and that Rebecca would be better off to stay where she is, they said.
"The first ones will be people from up Paula's way who have known her over the years and have experience with her and her children," Robey said. When asked whether those experiences were good or bad, Robey asked, "What do you think?"
Robey said the child psychologist will testify that Rebecca has adjusted well to her life with the grandparents in Buena Vista.
"She's real happy," he said, adding that the psychologist would describe "how she's been doing regarding this whole situation."
He did not reveal what the private detective would say.
Lawyers for the grandparents may ask Judge John B. Curry II to dismiss Johnson's case Friday on the grounds that she has not shown sufficient reason to change the current custody arrangement.
"Procedurally, the total burden is on her to start with," Robey said.
Rebecca's grandparents--Rosa and Larry Chittum and Linda and Tommy Rogers--declined comment today, but friends had plenty to say.
Shirley Feazell, a friend of both families, spent the morning tying blue ribbons (Rebecca's favorite color) to trees and fence posts around the courthouse, a symbol, she said, of the support that the Buena Vista community has for their most famous and beleaguered residents.
"More than anything, we feel love and concern for this little girl," Feazell said. "I know the love they have for this little girl. This child has already lost her parents. It's important that she stays with people that she knows."
Rebecca's great aunt Dottie Lynn also came to the courthouse this morning to post copies of an open letter from the community accusing Johnson of manipulating the media with television appearances and hinting that she is interested mainly in money.
"For almost a year now all we've seen and heard is Paula Johnson and her tears of her loss," the letter says. "We want to know, just what has she lost? What about the Rogers and Chittum families? You do not see them crying on TV and wanting money for their loss. All they want to do is be able to raise the two little girls that Kevin and Whitney left behind."
Johnson has said that she is pressing for custody only because of the blood bond between her and Rebecca.
Because of the Veterans Day holiday, the court building was closed for other business. A few locals stopped to see whether they could watch the trial. More than a dozen newspaper and television reporters camped outside.
In comments before the hearing began, Curry said the case could take as long as three days. He said he would like to take time after the hearing to prepare a written opinion, but he left open the possibility of a decision from the bench.