SMITHFIELD — Five years after 4-year-old Sean Paddock was suffocated to death by his adoptive mother, a civil court jury found that his adoptive father was also responsible for the boy's death.
The verdict Tuesday against Johnny Paddock and adoption agency Children's Home Society of North Carolina was the result of a lawsuit brought in Johnston County Superior Court by Ron Ford, Sean's biological grandfather and administrator of his estate.
Johnny Paddock was never charged in Sean's death on the family's farm near Smithfield in 2006. But throughout the murder trial of his ex-wife Lynn, relatives and others questioned why Johnny Paddock wasn't held accountable for the child abuse in his home, which went on for years before Sean was killed. Lynn Paddock was convicted of first-degree murder in 2008 and will spend the rest of her life in prison.
"It belies all common sense that Johnny Paddock didn't know what was happening to those children," said Jay Trehy, an attorney for Ford. "All we're asking (the jury) to do is say to the world, to Johnny Paddock, 'you're a slayer, too.'"
The attorney for the Greensboro-based Children's Home Society, David Coats, said the evidence didn't support a judgment that Johnny Paddock participated in the "willful and unlawful killing or the procurement of killing of Sean Paddock."
"It's not, 'Do you like Johnny Paddock,' " Coats said. "It's not 'Should Johnny Paddock have done something?' "
Absent from court
While the adoption agency was a defendant in the case, the action that concluded Tuesday was to determine Johnny Paddock's responsibility. Whether the agency has liability for the death of the child it placed with the Paddocks will be determined in a second trial.
Paddock wasn't in the courtroom to hear the jury's findings. He didn't attend any of the trial, nor did he send a lawyer. That left lawyers for the Children's Home Society to defend him, and Trehy was critical of his absence. Tuesday's verdict was a setback for the agency because a successful defense of Johnny Paddock would have ended the suit.
"Did (Paddock) once walk through that door and defend himself because we're calling him a murderer?" Trehy said. "He'll send out his children to defend him. He'll get an adoption agency to defend him."
As in the 2008 murder trial, much of the case centered on testimony from the Paddocks' other children, several of whom are now adults. Others still live with Johnny Paddock. They said Lynn Paddock often beat them with the plastic plumbing pipes she kept in each room of the farmhouse. They said their mother also made them eat their own feces and exercise for hours and taped their mouths shut.
But they largely defended their father, who they say never beat them and was often away from the house or asleep when the abuse happened.
What did he know?
Lawyers for Ford say Johnny Paddock still knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it - except on the night his daughter's screams were keeping him from sleeping.
"Sleep was very important to Johnny Paddock," attorney David Mills, who also represented Ford, said, adding that Lynn Paddock wrapped Sean tightly in blankets to keep him from disturbing her husband - the act that caused Sean to suffocate. "He didn't care what she did to those children as long as it didn't bother him."
Mills said Johnny Paddock drove his wife to buy the plumbing pipes.
"He admitted that he knew she used plumbing pipes to beat the children," Mills said. "He had to know that no one was allowed to go to the bathroom without permission. He admitted that he knew Sean slept on the floor in the kitchen for months."
Coats, the adoption agency's lawyer, questioned the children's testimony that led to those conclusions. He pointed to inconsistencies in what they said in court now and what they told investigators in 2006 and again at the murder trial in 2008.
Coats also reminded jurors that Johnny Paddock was seen crying in the days after Sean's death, while his wife appeared to be angry and spoke to no one.
In the end, Coats' arguments didn't sway the jury, which took just 30 minutes to reach a verdict. But the decision won't put an end to the lawsuit, and no damages will be awarded yet.
What is next
This jury's finding against Johnny Paddock stops him from being Sean's legal father. Under state law, that finding is necessary before someone can seek damages for the remaining siblings. Attorneys for Sean's grandfather plan to seek a second trial for wrongful death to obtain unspecified damages from Paddock and the adoption agency.
Ford would not collect a dime of any money a jury awards Sean Paddock's estate. That money would be directed to Sean's nearest relatives: his siblings. Ron Ford's standing as Sean's family was erased the day the Paddocks adopted Sean, and he is not allowed to see the boy's siblings.
Still, Tuesday's verdict left Ford in tears, and he said he's pleased to see the adoptive father held accountable.
As he left the courtroom, he said, "I need someone to take responsibility."
Staff writer Mandy Locke contributed to this report.
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