Auburn woman starts trial in killing of 2-year-old daughter


BANGOR — The first day of testimony on Monday in the jury-waived murder trial of an Auburn woman accused of killing her nearly 2½-year-old daughter last year was an emotional one with witnesses and the defendant weeping as the last days of Loh Melody Grenda were described by the girl’s father and grandfather in a second-floor courtroom at the Penobscot Judicial Center.

Leanna Norris, 25, formerly of Stetson has been charged with intentional or knowing murder in connection with the death of her daughter on the night of June 23, 2013. Last month, she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in addition to the not-guilty plea she entered last year.

Dressed in a blue sweater and dark slacks, Norris wept quietly as the toddler’s father and grandfather testified. She occasionally passed notes to her attorneys.

Defense attorney Martha Harris of Bangor said in her opening statement that Norris suffered from severe depression, anxiety disorder and a mood disorder when she smothered her daughter. She said that Norris is not criminally responsible for her death.

Assistant Attorney General Deb Cashman, who is prosecuting the case, told Superior Court Justice Ann Murray that the evidence would prove Norris acted intentionally and knew right from wrong when she killed the child.

The toddler’s father, Michael Grenda, 27, of Auburn, and grandfather Steven W. Norris, 50, of Stetson testified Monday that the defendant did not tell them she intended to kill her daughter and herself after Grenda ended their relationship on Father’s Day 2013. Both men described the defendant as a doting mother who took good care of the girl.

Grenda, who works at a call center and performs in a band, told the judge that he and Leanna Norris had been fighting frequently and that police had been called by neighbors at least twice because of their loud arguments. He testified that on June 16, 2013, he and the mother of his child decided to continue living together to raise their daughter.

He said that he and Norris had come close to reconciling when he discovered that she had been making plans to see other men on social media. In the early hours of June 23, 2013, the day his daughter was killed, Grenda woke his girlfriend up and told her “that was the end of everything.”

“She became very upset,” he testified. “She was crying and smashing her head against the wall.”

Grenda said he calmed her down, and she went back to sleep. Later that day, he got ready to go out to visit friends about 4 p.m.

“I asked if she would be there when I got home and she said, ‘Yes.’” Grenda testified.

Then he hugged and kissed his daughter for the last time, he said.

Grenda said he learned about noon the next day that his daughter was dead.

Steven Norris said that his daughter and granddaughter spent a great deal of time at the Stetson farm, which is owned by Leanna Norris’ parents. They paid Norris to care for her younger siblings and help with chores around the farm during a period when Grenda was unemployed, he testified.

On June 16, 2013, they celebrated Father’s Day and Norris’ birthday, which was two days later, Steven Norris told the judge. He testified that during the week, he became concerned because his daughter stopped answering her phone and did not return text messages, which was unusual. Toward the end of the week, she sent a text that said she was fine but needed to sort some things out, he said.

The next time he spoke to his daughter was at 2:27 a.m. June 24, 2013, when Leanna Norris called and said, “‘Daddy, I’ve killed Loh.’ She was hysterical,” Steven Norris testified.

He said that his wife, Margaret Norris, took the phone and spoke to their daughter, and he got on a different phone and called 911. A few minutes later, Leanna Norris pulled into their driveway, with the dead girl in the passenger seat.

A volunteer firefighter for 10 years, Steven Norris said that he opened the passenger door and touched his granddaughter.

“I knew she had passed because she was so cold,” he testified.

He said his daughter was hysterical, flailing her arms and legs, begging for a gun so she could kill herself.

“She said that no mother who does this deserves to live,” Norris told the judge.

His testimony is expected to resume on Tuesday. Margaret Norris also most likely will take the stand.

The trial is scheduled to last until Friday. The judge is expected to take the case under advisement and deliver her verdict later in the year.

Some of the facts expected to be presented at her trial were outlined in an affidavit written by Detective Thomas Pickering of the Maine State Police and filed in connection with an application for a search warrant. It said that Norris drove her daughter to Durham Bridge Road in Newport about 8:45 p.m. June 23, 2013, and gave her “two or three syringes of Benadryl to make her go to sleep.”

Benadryl is an antihistamine that can be used as a sleep aid.

“ Leanna Norris put black Gorilla [duct] tape on Loh Grenda’s mouth and nose; that Leanna Norris put a blanket over Loh Grenda’s face so she would not have to look at Loh’s eyes,” the affidavit said. “Leanna Norris said that she killed Loh Grenda; that Leanna Norris put her hand over Loh Grenda’s face and suffocated her.”

She then removed the duct tape from her daughter’s face “so it would not look so horrible,” according to the document.

Norris then drove to a cemetery in Stetson “where she took pills and put tape on her face in order to kill herself,” according to the affidavit. She fell asleep but awoke and vomited and then called her father from the cemetery, according to the affidavit.

If convicted of murder, Norris faces between 25 years and life in prison. Norris would be committed to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta if Murray finds her not guilty by reason of insanity.

She has been held without bail at the Penobscot County Jail since her arrest July 3, 2013, when she was released from a psychiatric ward at a midcoast hospital.

BDN writers Nok-Noi Ricker and Nick McCrea contributed to this report.