As far as Cindy Connaway is concerned, she lost her daughter on May 23, 2014, the night Hannah Connaway was nearly beaten to death by Michael Hutton.
Though she survived the attack, Connaway said Hannah is not the same sociable teen with a passion for make-up and a penchant for high-level math she was before that night.
And it is likely she never will be.
“My daughter died that night in the hospital,” Connaway told the jury Friday in Hutton’s attempted first degree murder trial. “We brought home a different Hannah.”
Hutton’s trial got underway Monday with his admission of responsibility for three charges: felony assault inflicting serious bodily injury to the brain, felony assault by strangulation and misdemeanor assault on a female. He has pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder and kidnapping, as well as felony assault inflicting serious bodily injury to the victim’s genital area.
While Hutton, now 20, acknowledges he assaulted then 17-year-old Connaway repeatedly in the head with his closed fist, leaving her with a permanent brain injury, the defense contends that he never intended at any point during the attack to end her life.
Friday, the prosecution in the case called Cindy Connaway, as well as medical experts to paint a picture of Hannah–before and after the incident.
Following their testimony, a shaken, disheveled and emotional Hannah Connaway took the stand to speak for herself, though her testimony was short and marked by loud sobs from Hutton.
Before that night last May, Cindy Connaway said, her daughter was a “sweet, spirited, happy-go-lucky” girl who was excited to graduate from Isaac Bear Early College High School and begin her first semester at the University of Hawaii, where she planned to put her math skills to use in mechanical engineering.
“If someone needed help, Hannah would do anything to help them. If there was a party, she was going to it,” Cindy Connaway said.
She also described her daughter as a “beautiful young lady,” a former Azalea Belle who loved putting on make-up and doing her hair.
That changed after Hutton’s attack on Hannah, one that sent her to the hospital and required emergency brain surgery to relieve pressure and swelling in her brain.
“The choice was to either move quickly and possibly save a life or get bogged down in conversation and possibly lose one,” said Dr. George Alsina, the New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) neurosurgeon who performed the operation.
Although the surgery was successful, the recovery has been long and difficult, Cindy Connaway said. Her daughter suffered from temporary paralysis on one side of her body and was unable to perform the most basic tasks.
“She didn’t talk for the longest time,” she recalled. “She had to learn how to walk, eat, talk. She had to learn how to do everything again.”
And while she has regained much of her previous life, Hannah’s personality has changed, Cindy Connaway added. She has lost her mathematical savvy, has struggled with social norms and is often forgetful, neglecting sometimes to put shoes on before leaving the house.
“She doesn’t really care about her appearance. She’s not the same Hannah that she was,” Cindy Connaway said.
On the stand, a tearful Hannah said she has no memory of the incident. She now attends UNC-Wilmington, with hopes of becoming an English professor, but said she struggles with retention in her academics.
Alsina testified that patients suffering major head trauma often have lifelong side effects. He said injuries such as Hannah’s can impact “upper level functions” of the brain, including impulse and emotional control and decision-making skills.
“That may last six months, nine months, a year. Or it may never clear,” he said.
The same is true of seizures, he said, which can plague a patient like Hannah Connaway, showing up months after the injury and possibly lasting a lifetime.
Jurors also heard testimony Friday from Colleen Mistovich, a registered nurse who works in the emergency room at NHRMC and is also a certified sexual assault nurse examiner.
Mistovich was called in to examine Hannah three days after her admittance to the hospital, when a nurse noticed swelling in her genital area and bruising–in the pattern of fingertips–on both upper thighs.
While there was no evidence that Hannah was sexually assaulted, Mistovich said injuries to the outer genital area were consistent with blunt force trauma.
Following Hannah’s brief testimony, the court recessed early Friday afternoon. The trial will resume Monday morning, with the defense expected to begin calling its witnesses to the stand. Criminal defense attorney Miriam Thompson has said that Hutton will take the stand.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at email@example.com.