Ariah Roberts murder trial: Mother describes finding toddler unconscious

8:20 pm on 28 August 2019

The mother of a Mangawhai toddler at the centre of a murder trial has described finding her daughter limp and unconscious.

Aaron James Archer is accused of murdering a toddler at Mangawhai in Northland on 22 August 2018.

Aaron Archer Photo: RNZ/Anneke Smith

Aaron Archer is on trial at the High Court in Auckland accused of murdering his partner's daughter Ariah Dawn Roberts at her home on 22 August 2018.

The two-year-old sustained an unsurvivable brain injury while in Mr Archer's care when her mother went to a local superette to buy dinner ingredients about 7pm.

Today Ariah's mother, who has permanent name suppression, told the jury about a frantic call with the defendant when she returned to her car with the shopping.

"I saw I had a missed call from Aaron. I called him back and he answered saying that Ariah wasn't breathing. I was just screamed 'What?' 'What do you mean?'

"There was one point where he must have put the phone down and it stayed on speaker so I was just screaming at the phone to say call an ambulance, get my neighbours."

She said Mr Archer ran out onto their deck when she arrived and they went into the two-bedroom flat where she desperately searched for her daughter.

"I found her in my bedroom. She was covered with my dressing gown and she was very pale. I picked her up and then realised she was very limp."

The court has heard from the woman's neighbours Steve and Helen Taua who came running to Ariah's aid when her mother screamed for help.

Mr Taua worked on the girl until emergency services arrived but the toddler had an unsurvivable head injury and died shortly afterwards.

Her mother cried in court today as she described realising the toddler was dead when she saw emergency personnel lowering the curtains in her home.

It's the Crown's case that Mr Archer assaulted Ariah that evening. His defence has maintained the girl hit her head while they were playing together.

This morning, jurors were shown post-mortem photographs that showed the girl had more than 20 bruises on her body; the majority of them on different parts of her head.

New Zealand pathologist Dr Rexson Tse, who conducted the post mortem, told the jury a single knock to the head may explain one or two bruises but not two dozen.

"These are not normally seen in children of toddler age of normal daily knocks and bumps. These are classical features of abusive head trauma therefore it is very, very, very unlikely this is from an accident."

Under cross-examination, the pathologist conceded it was possible the worst two bruises could be explained by a child being swung by their feet, slipping and hitting their head, but he took issue with defence lawyer Ron Mansfield's suggestion the remaining bruises could be explained by emergency staff handling Ariah's body.

"There are bruises that can be possibly explained by resuscitation or by hitting a wall and falling on the ground - but there are quite a few bruises that are unexplained."

The jury was told another expert, whom the defence will call later this week, had found Aaron Archer's explanation of what happened that night did correlate with Ariah's injuries.

Mr Mansfield asked Mr Tse if he had been "too keen" to identify the toddler's injuries as non-accidental.

"Unless I've been provided a plausible scenario that can explain the bruises I think I would accept it but I have not been provided any acceptable reasons," the doctor replied.

"Resuscitation can explain some, bumping can explain some, but there are some concerning ones."

What is known of Mr Archer's account of what happened that night has come from various first responders who heard him say she hit her head while they were playing or he dropped her.

He declined to give a statement to police - as is his right. His defence lawyers have told the jury the girl's death was a tragic accident.

The court was told Ariah was not the first child her mother has lost; she had a twin brother who died after breaking his amniotic fluid 10 weeks premature.

The mother told the jury today she had been in a relationship with Mr Archer for six months, living with him for five of these, and completely trusted him with her baby girl.

"I wouldn't have someone in the house that was going to be dangerous. She was like my miracle child so I was very protective of her."

Mr Archer cried in the dock this afternoon as the Crown played the voicemail he left on the Ariah's mother's phone that night.

In it, he can be heard breathing heavily as he wails in distress, repeatedly screaming Ariah's name, "no", and "I'm sorry".

The Crown has closed its case against Mr Archer. The defence is expected to call an expert forensic witness tomorrow.

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