Tub and toilet in courtroom prove obstacles for lawyers

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

A bathtub in the middle of the courtroom yesterday set a bizarre stage for the trial in Ontario Superior Court of a Scarborough woman accused of drowning her four-year-old daughter.

Xuan Peng, 35, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Scarlet Chen. The autistic child was found in the family's bathtub on July 12, 2004.

Defence lawyers Kathryn Wells and John Mann had trouble approaching the witness box throughout yesterday's session because of a replica bathroom - complete with tub, sink, toilet and even a roll for toilet paper - that stretched from the court reporter and clerk box to the Crown's desk. By midday, Madam Justice Mary Lou Benotto asked spectators to clear the front row so that co-counsel could use it as a passage.

Detective Sergeant Rick McKeown, who arrived at the townhouse around 9:27 p.m., after several police were already on scene, testified that the water still had "bubbles" and was "cool" to the touch. He said "the water line was just below overflow."

In cross-examination, Mr. Mann asked him why he didn't take any samples from the tub, which Ms. Peng had said she filled with bleach and detergent so she could soak household items.

"The bathwater in the bathtub is a big deal isn't? And the bathwater, if there's laundry detergent in it, is a big deal," he said.

Det. Sgt. McKeown replied, "In hindsight, I should've."

Through two Mandarin translators, Ms. Peng also heard her lawyer question the security of the scene, as he pointed out several differences between two sets of photos, one taken by Det. Sgt. McKeown and the other by his colleague Det. Sgt. John Davidson, who took over the forensic identification three days later.

The jury saw that a blanket in the master bedroom had been moved between the two visits. Dresser drawers in the room were closed in Det. Sgt. McKeown's photo, but open in Det. Sgt. Davidson's.

In another set of photos, a bathmat had been moved.

"And you have no explanation for that?" Mr. Mann repeatedly asked Det. Sgt. McKeown.

The trial began Tuesday with Crown prosecutor Joshua Levy proposing that Ms. Peng couldn't cope with her daughter's autism and that she drowned her in the tub. He said a pathologist would confirm bruises indicating the child was held down, and phone records would show Ms. Peng called her husband David Chen numerous times that evening in a panic.

The trial resumes today.