HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The first day of testimony in the Christopher Henderson murder trial looked squarely at the terrible toll prosecutors say he inflicted on the Smallwood family in New Market in August 2015.
The jury heard from a deputy whose body camera video showed the family’s house on fire, a medical examiner began to outline the injuries suffered by the victims, and home security video placed Henderson, wearing black gloves, at the scene the day of the killings.
Madison County Assistant District Attorney Shauna Barnett told jurors during her opening statement that they have substantial evidence against Henderson and that he should be found guilty on every count. Following that, she said, jurors should choose to give him the death penalty.
Barnett also told jurors the state understands that this case – with details of child murders and more — is a hard, lonely road, but they will find their way.
Defense attorney Bruce Gardner pushed hard in another direction, arguing Rhonda Carlson, Henderson’s first wife – who he never divorced before marrying Kristen Smallwood – was to blame for the killings.
Gardner said prosecutors have reached a deal with Carlson which enables her to avoid a possible death sentence, but requires her to testify against Henderson.
Gardner called that a deal with the devil.
He told the jury Carlson was the one who planned the killlings, performed them and had the motivation to do so.
Kristen Smallwood was 9 months pregnant with his child at the time of the killings. Her unborn daughter, her mother Jean Smallwood, her 8-year-old son, Clayton Chambers, her 1-year-old nephew Eli Sokolowski, were also killed that day.
Keith Smallwood, Kristen’s brother testified that Kristen, Henderson, and Clayton had returned to Alabama from Michigan and moved into the Smallwood’s parents’ home on St. Clair Lane. They lived there for several months, but had relationship issues, Keith Smallwood said.
Henderson was asked to leave the home in June 2015 and the family changed the locks.
Christopher Henderson filed for divorce in July 2015, court records show. Kristen Henderson filed for a protection order against him on July 29 and on July 31, she filed a notice to the court that a divorce wasn’t necessary. The filing argues she had learned Henderson was still married to Carlson.
Keith Smallwood testified that about a week before the killings he’d purchased a video security system for the home on St. Clair and Kristen helped him figure out where to point the cameras. The images from near the front door and garage would be sent out via notifications, for phone and email, when it recorded people on the property.
Some of the security video — showing Kristen Smallwood and her son — who were both killed — was played in court Thursday.
The video played in court Thursday shows a person prosecutors say is Rhonda Carlson, who’s also charged in the case. She appears to be trying to enter a door near the home’s garage. The woman then gets in a small SUV and drives away.
Kristen Smallwood is then seen returning home after picking up her 8-year-old son from school. He can be seen exiting a van and carrying his backpack into the house. Later, a visibly pregnant Kristen enters the house.
Carlson returns to the home apparently with a gas can and the video later shows what appears to be Christopher Henderson running out of the home.
The first prosecution witness — Madison County Sheriff’s Deputy Drew Lane – testified to receiving a domestic disturbance call and said when he got near the home, he saw a plume of smoke.
As he got closer, Kristen’s sister, 1-year-old Eli’s mother was frantically trying to get his attention, saying there were people inside the home.
Deputy Lane testified to grabbing a gas mask and he another deputy tried to break windows and yelled to see if anyone was inside who needed help. There was no response.
Keith Smallwood testified he had been the first family member on the scene, saw the house on fire and used a sledgehammer to open the front door. He testified he was blown back by draft from the fire and couldn’t get closer because of the flame and smoke.
A representative with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, who assisted in the autopsies back in 2015 – the doctor who performed them has since died – testified about the victims’ injuries. The prosecution also entered pictures of the bodies – which appeared to be charred beyond recognition – into evidence, without going through them with the jury.
Before the trial began Friday, one juror pushed to be excused, citing concerns about their inability to handle the disturbing material. After a lengthy discussion, Madison County Circuit Judge Chris Comer excused the juror. The jury pool is now 12 jurors and five alternates.
The case is due to resume Friday morning.