Image caption,Rebecca Hogue and her son Jeremiah “Ryder” Johnson
Rebecca Hogue’s boyfriend beat her toddler son to death while she was at work. So why is she the one being called a murderer?
This story contains details of domestic and child abuse that may be upsetting to some readers.
In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2020, Rebecca Hogue came home from a 12-hour shift at the Oklahoma casino where she worked as a cocktail waitress, crawled into bed next to her 2-year-old son Ryder, and her boyfriend, and drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, she woke to find that Ryder wasn’t breathing. Her boyfriend, Christopher Trent, was at work. She called the police and panicked.
Bodycam footage of that day from emergency responders shows her trying in vain to perform CPR on her son, who was pronounced dead when he arrived at hospital.
A coroner’s report later concluded that his cause of death was blunt-force trauma, and evidence from the home Hogue shared with Trent showed strands of Ryder’s hair were found in the drywall.
Hogue says she didn’t know any of that then. She called Trent, begging him to meet her at the hospital.
But he wouldn’t respond to her texts or voice messages.
Four days later, police found Trent’s body in the Wichita Mountains. He had died by an apparent suicide. A prosecutor would later make clear it was known that Trent had killed Ryder.
Carved into a tree near the site where his body was found were these words: Rebecca is innocent.
But with Trent dead, the investigation turned to the 29-year-old Hogue, who was charged with first-degree murder. In Oklahoma, parents who fail to protect their children from child abuse can be charged with the same crimes as the actual abuser.
“Failure to protect” laws, which exist in many US states, have drawn criticism from domestic violence experts who say in practice, they often criminalise victims of domestic abuse who may be too scared to leave.
Hogue’s case has drawn significant attention from media and women’s rights groups, and raises questions about the lasting wounds of trauma, as well as the limitations of the law to bring justice for the victims of abuse.
Hogue’s trial took place in autumn last year. To convince a jury that she was guilty, the state needed to prove she knew about the abuse and didn’t do anything about it.
Hogue says she had no idea Trent was abusing Ryder before that day, though not long before his death, she had begun to notice the boy had minor unexplained injuries.
Two weeks before Ryder died, Hogue noticed bruises and cuts on his body, she told police. She took photos, and began searching on her phone for warning signs that a child might be being abused.
But when she confronted Trent about it, he told her that boys get “nicks and bruises”, according to police interviews.
Two days before Ryder’s death, while giving him a bath, Hogue noticed her son was lethargic. She again confronted Trent, who suggested that Ryder must have had the flu.
Hogue later told police she searched online for symptoms of the flu, and also for signs of how a child might act if they were being abused. She said she searched for those things because “she attracts those kinds of men”.
The state says her searches prove she knew Trent was abusing her child, but she forgave him.
Hogue says she searched because she was cautious, but ultimately believed Trent’s explanations for the injuries.
“She said she fell for it again because he manipulated her,” the police report reads.
Prosecutors say those initial suspicions about his injuries — and the fact that she continued to allow Trent to babysit — are proof that Hogue was guilty of “permitting her child to be murdered”.
Several pieces of evidence were not allowed into trial, which Hogue’s pro-bono attorney Andrew Casey believes could have helped her case.
The tree-carving with the words “Rebecca is innocent” was considered hearsay, and a ban was placed on distributing those images.
The lead detective who investigated the murder was not allowed to give his opinion on the merits of the case, and an audio recording that captured him discussing it with a friend of Hogue was not allowed into court.
On the recording, obtained by the BBC, he admits that his team looked into the question of whether to lay charges and decided they did not have enough evidence for a “failure to protect” first-degree murder charge.
“We don’t believe in this charge and there’s a good chance she ends up in prison anyway because of the way the system is,” Detective Sean Judy can be heard saying on the recording.
The candid conversation was first reported on by the Norman Transcript, a local newspaper.
Mr Judy and the Norman Police Department declined to comment to the Norman Transcript and the police department did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
The district attorney’s office chose to bypass police charges by asking a jury to decide if charges should be brought, which is allowed in some American jurisdictions, rather than bringing police charges. Ultimately, the jury decided charges were warranted.
The district attorney did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.
And finally, the jury were not allowed to hear expert testimony about Hogue’s previous experiences with domestic violence and how it could affect her, because she was not the one being physically abused by Trent.
Over the eight-day trial, prosecutors repeatedly showed graphic images of Ryder’s dead body covered in bruises, including leaving a picture of his bruised genitals up for 10 minutes during closing arguments.
It took the jury less than two hours to convict.
Speaking to the BBC from prison, where she awaits sentencing on Friday, Hogue says she keeps playing those brutal images over and over in her head.
“The things they said in trial, they haunt me,” Hogue told the BBC from the Cleveland County Detention Centre in Oklahoma.
Growing up an only child, Hogue didn’t know what it was like to be around little children until she gave birth to one, she says. She was overwhelmed by how much she loved him, and she still calls him her “best friend”.
“He already had a sense of humour at two and a half,” she says, smiling at the memory.
With no prior criminal record, Hogue is now looking at the possibility of spending decades in prison. The state has the highest rate of female incarceration in the country.
The jury recommended life with parole only possible after 38 years, but the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said a deferred sentence, with no jail time and mandatory counselling, is more appropriate.
All this scares her. But what scares her the most is the idea that the tawdry glare of this courtroom drama will outshine the memories of her happy, loving boy.
“Ryder is getting lost in all this. That he’s not being remembered,” she says through tears, her eyes wide as a prairie sky.
“I don’t know why this happened to us. I ask that all the time.”