MADISON COUNTY, Ala. – The prosecution rested its case after three full days of witness testimony in Christopher Henderson’s capital murder trial.
Henderson is charged in the 2015 killings of five people in New Market. Authorities said all victims were either shot or stabbed before the house was set on fire. The victims have been identified as Kristen Smallwood, her unborn child, her 8-year-old son Clayton Chambers, her 1-year-old nephew Eli Sokolowski, and her mother Jean Smallwood.
Last week, during the first two days of testimony, extremely disturbing autopsy photos were presented along with extensive details about those crimes.
Henderson is one of two suspects in this case. To avoid the death penalty, the other suspect, Rhonda Carlson, made a deal with prosecutors to testify in this case.
Carlson, the state’s most anticipated witness and Henderson’s first wife, stayed on the stand for most of the day. On Friday she was questioned by the state. Monday she was cross-examined by Henderson’s defense team for the first time.
Last week during opening arguments, the defense alleged that Carlson was the mastermind behind the crimes. Monday in court, Henderson’s attorney pointed out how long it took Carlson to tell investigators what happened and questioned why she didn’t contact the police before the crimes occurred.
Much of the morning was spent watching her interrogation video from when she was first arrested in 2015.
But, before playing Carlson’s interrogation video, defense attorney Bruce Gardner asked, “Do you agree the truth does not come easy for you?”
Carlson replied, “Yes sir.”
The audio of the several-hours-long recorded interrogation was difficult to understand in the media staging area, but from what News 19 was able to hear Carlson continued to deny having any involvement in the killings, saying she had no idea what happened inside the house.
As the interrogation video continued, she changed her story eventually admitting to driving Henderson to the home, bringing a gas can, stepping inside the garage door, and knowing people were dying or dead inside.
Several times in the recording, the investigators leave Carlson alone in the room. Once for around ten minutes. During the trial, defense attorney Gardner said he allowed the silence to play to show that Carlson did not display any sign of empathy.
At one point during the trial Monday morning Gardner asked Carlson what she was smiling about as she sat on the stand. She said she didn’t know.
Gardner said Carlson bringing the gas can to the home she was essentially brining the grenade. Carlson agreed.
Gardner asked Carlson if she essentially killed one of the children.
She said, “Yes sir.” According to the autopsy report, the lungs of one victim show they were still breathing when the fire started.
After the court’s lunch break, the defense continued its questioning of Rhonda Carlson, entering a slew of recorded phone calls Carlson made while she was in jail before she was indicted.
A bubbly Carlson asked about her family and repeatedly told them she had ‘nothing to do with it’ and she was in a fog the day of the crimes. After the calls, Gardner pointed out Carlson lied. An emotionless, matter-of-fact Carlson simply agreed saying “Yes sir”.
Gardner then played an audio recording from 2019 when he says Carlson cut a “deal” with prosecutors. In that interview, Carlson outlined the planning process leading up to the killings. Carlson says that in days prior to the murders, Henderson researched how to take Kristen’s unborn baby saying he planned to raise it with Carlson.
But after the murders, Carlson said Henderson told her he changed his mind about wanting the child.
During that 2019 interview played for the court, Carlson says on the day of the murders, after some errands and a nap, she and Henderson drove to a gas station to pick up lighters and Gatorade. When Kristen Smallwood drove by, Carlson said that she got in the driver’s seat, and they headed to the house. Carlson checked to see if the garage door was open and then waited outside while Henderson went inside.
Carlson said she later went inside with a gas can and saw one of the deceased victims. Henderson then poured gasoline and set the house on fire, and they ran away. She said she thought everyone inside the house was deceased.
Also, during that recording, Carlson explained she and Chris Henderson had broken up for several months before they got back together in 2015. During that time, Henderson remarried, and Kristen Smallwood was pregnant with his baby. Carlson said she was happy for them.
But after the recording stopped, Gardner questioned that, asking if she remembered telling someone she wanted Chris, but she had to get rid of Kristen first. Carlson said she didn’t remember.
Gardner brought up Carlson’s mental health, saying she has a 12-hundred-page medical record from her time in jail. He then explained that Carlson reported having auditory and visual hallucinations in 2016 and told a doctor she had been hallucinating since before the 2015 killings. She was diagnosed as psychotic and is currently taking multiple medications for her mental health.
The prosecution also called two other people to testify before resting their case, a forensic scientist and a retired investigator for the Madison County Sheriff’s Office who was the lead investigator the day of the killings.
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