3 years later, fa­ther pleads guilty, mother gets an­swers

The Herald Sun - - News - BY VIR­GINIA BRIDGES [email protected]­ald­sun.com

Jarri Clan­ton picked up her nearly 2-month-old daugh­ter after work at 1 a.m., and the baby’s fa­ther put her in a car seat after watch­ing her at his place in Durham.

Ka­rina Alexa Noel ap­peared to be asleep be­fore Clan­ton drove to Raleigh that night in May 2015 and car­ried the baby up to their apart­ment.

“I took her out of the car seat,” Clan­ton said, “and I knew some­thing wasn’t right.”

Ka­rina, barely 9 pounds, wouldn’t wake up. A large bruise had dark­ened one of her chubby cheeks, and her eyes were rolling around ran­domly.

Clan­ton texted Alex Noel, Ka­rina’s fa­ther, and asked what was hap­pen­ing. And she called 911. Doc­tors later said Ka­rina’s brain was bleed­ing, a re­sult of blunt force trauma. She died the next day, after she was taken off life sup­port.

For more than three years, Clan­ton has tried to ad­just to not know­ing ex­actly what led to the death of her baby, who wig­gled her hands like she was danc­ing. She has been on a jour­ney to re­build her life, one she wasn’t sure she wanted to live after Ka­rina died.

Clan­ton, 27, took a big step in that jour­ney last week. She con­fronted Ka­rina’s 26-year-old fa­ther, who pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and was sen­tenced to 20 to 25 years in prison.

The day in court marked the fi­nal step in a re­la­tion­ship that started about four years ago.

Clan­ton and Noel met while they work­ing at Papa John’s. He was 22, and she was 23.

“He was a re­ally nice per­son,” Clan­ton said dur­ing an in­ter­view this week. “He looked like he wanted a best friend.”

They flirted. She was “his girl” for about four months be­fore she found out she was preg­nant.

Clan­ton, a se­nior at N.C. Cen­tral Univer­sity at the time, de­cided to keep the baby. Noel was frus­trated be­cause he was try­ing to get his life to­gether, she said.

Ka­rina was born March 10, 2015.

About two months later, Clan­ton started a job at a call cen­ter that re­quired her to at­tend train­ing from 3 p.m. to mid­night. Noel was watch­ing Ka­rina, as he had done many times be­fore, when he texted Clan­ton to say he was be­ing kicked out of the place he was stay­ing.

Clan­ton said she didn’t want to jeop­ar­dize her new job.

“I can’t leave right now,” she re­sponded.

‘I WAS NUMB’

Later on, in the am­bu­lance on the way to WakeMed. Clan­ton prayed that Ka­rina would be OK. The baby wasn’t re­spon­sive at first, but then paramedics gave her a shot.

“She started cry­ing” after they gave her shot, Clan­ton said. “I felt bet­ter.”

Ka­rina was taken into into the emer­gency room, and Clan­ton was es­corted to a dark wait­ing room. When the chap­lain walked in, Clan­ton said, she knew her lit­tle girl wasn’t go­ing to make it.

“I knew that as a mom,” she said. Ka­rina was in a coma. “I was so hurt,” Clan­ton said. “I was numb.”

Noel called Clan­ton and asked how their baby was do­ing.

“And I was like, ‘What do mean is she OK?’ ” Clan­ton re­called. “‘What did you do to her? Who did this to her?’ And he wouldn’t tell me.”

The next day, on May 8, 2015, Ka­rina was taken off of life sup­port. Clan­ton and her step­fa­ther prayed over Ka­rina, whose leg moved.

“Maybe she is try­ing to tell me she is go­ing to be OK,” Clan­ton re­called think­ing.

The hard­est part, Clan­ton said, was walk­ing out of the hospi­tal with­out her baby.

“I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. ... I lost the love of my life.”

AN AR­REST

Noel was ini­tially charged with felony child abuse, but he was charged with mur­der after Ka­rina died.

Clan­ton vis­ited Noel in jail once, be­fore the court hear­ing last week. She needed to know what hap­pened to her baby. He didn’t tell her.

“He was try­ing to beat around the bush,” she said.

Clan­ton even­tu­ally went back to work at the call cen­ter, where she lis­tened to cus­tomers com­plain about their is­sues with tele­vi­sion cable. She re­sisted the urge to tell them their prob­lems were small by com­par­i­son.

“Let me tell you about this world and how it works,” she would think to her­self.

She said she walked through life like a ro­bot, go­ing on to work dif­fer­ent part-time and full-time jobs. Noth­ing re­ally in­ter­ested her un­til she started work­ing at one child-care cen­ter and then an­other.

Now Clan­ton is a teacher as­sis­tant for pre-kinder­garten, a job she wants to build a ca­reer around. She also works part-time at a home health-care agency.

In Septem­ber 2017, Clan­ton sus­tained a mi­nor in­jury when she was struck by a drunk driver. The ex­pe­ri­ence of go­ing to court helped her gain enough con­fi­dence to walk into the Durham County court­room last week to face Noel.

“I felt like God was pre­par­ing me for this day,” she said.

At first, Clan­ton wanted Noel to go to trial. But she de­cided to sup­port the plea deal, she said, be­cause it was time for her to move for­ward.

She saw Noel dur­ing the hear­ing.

“He looked at me like he just wanted his best friend,” she said.

Noel’s at­tor­ney, Mark Ed­wards, said in court that Noel was di­ag­nosed in jail with post trau­matic stress dis­or­der and bipo­lar dis­or­der.

Noel was taken from his mother when he was young after she was seen abus­ing him in front of a Chapel Hill home­less shel­ter, Ed­wards said. Noel stayed with rel­a­tives and foster fam­i­lies un­til he was even­tu­ally adopted.

As­sis­tant district at­tor­ney Cindy Ken­ney be­gan to de­scribe in court the ev­i­dence in the case. Clan­ton’s anx­i­ety started to rise, and she be­gan tap­ping on her chair.

She wanted to stran­gle Noel, she said. In­stead, she walked out the court­room. On her way out, she heard some of the de­tails she had been want­ing all along.

Noel had be­come frus­trated that night and threw Ka­rina down in a Pack ‘N Play, caus­ing fa­tal head trauma, Ken­ney said.

Clan­ton found com­fort in know­ing that Noel didn’t in­ten­tion­ally hurt their child, she said.

Clan­ton re­turned to the court­room and called Noel a cow­ard for not telling her right away what hap­pened.

She told him she felt sorry for him be­cause he never felt love like she has for her daugh­ter.

“For me to be in this much pain,” she said, “that’s love.”

Clan­ton said she felt re­lieved as she left the court­house. “I fi­nally got my clo­sure. I got my peace,” she said. “I got my san­ity back. I got my power back. And I can just keep walk­ing and go­ing and do­ing what I was sup­posed to do.”

‘‘ I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. ... I LOST THE LOVE OF MY LIFE. Jarri Clan­ton, dis­cussing the death of her in­fant daugh­ter

Cour­tesy of Jarri Clan­ton

Ka­rina Alexa Noel, al­most 2 months old

Alex Noel

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