A Franklin father facing trial in the scalding death of his 4-year-old son took the stand Wednesday in Warren County Common Pleas Court to testify in his defense.
Robert Ritchie is charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony child endangering for allegedly not seeking medical treatment for his son Austin, who was held in a bathtub of scalding water by his stepmother, Anna Ritchie.
Robert Ritchie, was unshackled and seated at the witness stand before the jury was brought into Judge Robert Peeler’s courtroom. He told defense attorney Frank Schiavone III that he was nervous, and he cried during much of his testimony.
After the arrest of Austin’s mother, who had a drug addiction, Robert Ritchie said he got custody of his son. His wife was not as happy about the boy living with them.
“She liked it when it was just me and her,” Robert Ritchie said.
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He added Anna Ritchie had anger problems both at home and and woke. “She had a short fuse.”
Robert Ritchie said his son was difficult to bathe and settle down for bed.
“He wanted to say up and play all night, God love him,” Robert Ritchie said with his voice cracking.
Robert Ritchie testified Anna wanted him to punish Austin more and spank him.
“I couldn’t raise a hand to that child. He was my best friend,” Robert Ritchie said.
Before he returned home from work at the Dollar Store in Lebanon on March 16, Robert Ritchie said his wife had already told him Austin had been burned in the bath tub.
“She said it was like a sunburn,” Robert Richie said.
Anna Ritchie met him outside the Boulder Drive residence and she was dressed provocatively, Robert Ritchie said.
“She told me he was fine and to let him sleep,” he said during testimony.
Robert Ritchie said he never heard Austin scream or cry, even while the couple ate dinner.
Doctors testified Monday and Tuesday that Austin had second- and third-degree burns on about 28 percent of his body and died of hypovolemic shock. He was found dead in his bed on March 16.
“I would give anything on God’s earth to bring him back,” Robert Ritchie said on the witness stand.
He said Anna Ritchie become aggressive with him when she returned to the residence after Bible study because he tried to check on Austin.
“She grabbed my shirt and told me ‘Don’t you go in that room,’ ” Robert Ritchie said. “I trusted my wife.”
Robert Ritchie said that if he thought Austin needed help, he would have ignored his wife and helped his son.
“I still can’t imagine it. Who could do that to a child that is defenseless?” he said.
During cross examination from the prosecution, Robert Ritchie admitted he had received text messages from Anna Ritchie on the night of March 15 describing the burns, noting Austin’s skin was peeling off.
Warren County Sheriff’s Office Det. Christopher Wong read text messages for the jury that he extracted from Anna Ritchie’s phone.
In one text, Anna Ritchie said to Robert that Austin’s feet were bleeding and that he was playing with the skin in the bathtub.
She also texted her husband she felt bad and she “had no idea (the bath water) was so scorching.”
Robert Robert Ritchie texted back “No one’s fault, it was an accident … it’s OK. He is still alive, and apparently he can still walk.”
He still did not check on his son, Robert Ritchie said during cross examination.
“I could hear him making noises, talking like usual,” he said.
“It will be with me forever,” Robert Ritchie said when asked by his attorney if he will ever forgive himself for not checking on Austin.
Anna Ritchie was transported from prison, where she is serving 18 years to life for the murder of Austin, to testify in the trial. But neither the prosecution nor the defense called her to the stand.
The jury did hear Anna Ritchie describe what happened to Austin in a video interview with Franklin police played in the courtroom.
Anna Ritchie told Det. Jeff Stewart she held Austin in the hot bath water for 25 minutes. When she finally raised him out of the tub the child was strangely silent and she guessed he was in shock. She told the detective the child’s feet were bleeding and his skin had come off in the water, Anna said in the interview.
She then put socks on the boy to keep blood from getting on the bed.
“I will admit it was a form of punishment, but I didn’t think it was going to cause skin to fall off him,” Anna Ritchie told the detective in the interview.
Closing arguments will begin at 9 a.m. Thursday. Then the jury will begin deliberations.