Trial begins for teen accused of murdering Grace Ross

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind., --- The first day for the trial for the teen suspect charged with molesting and murdering six-year-old Grace Ross in New Carlisle nearly two years ago took place Monday.

Anthony Hutchens, 16, is being tried as an adult, even though he was only 14 at the time of the crime.

He is facing both murder and child molestation charges in St. Joseph County Superior Court.

Nearly a dozen family members of Grace filled the seats in the courtroom for the first day of the trial.

The teenage defendant Anthony Hutchens had the support of his mother in the court room.

Intensity filled the courtroom on the first day of his bench trial.

Seven witnesses took the stand for the prosecution -- including Grace's stepfather who was home with her that day and -- a now nine-year-old girl who was playing outside with grace on the day of the murder.

During Monday’s trial, the prosecution asked Grace’s friend if she was playing with her the day she passed away.

The nine-year-old said yes and that,

“Anthony was playing with them in the playground too.”

She went on to say it was getting late so Grace walked her about halfway back to her house and that was the last time she ever saw her friend again.

Grace's stepfather at the time, Matthew Penn, also took the stand Monday.

He said he was usually the one home when Grace got back from school. He says on March 12th -- the day Grace died -- she went out to play with her friend but never returned when it started getting late, so he said he started to worry and,

“Alerted her mother, Michelle, when Grace wasn’t there.”

He went on to say friends and police came rushing to the house to help search for her and police wound up finding her body partially nude in the woods.

Legal experts also weighed in and told ABC57 News this will likely be a very difficult week of testimony for Grace’s family.

"It's going to be, I think, one of the worst weeks of their lives but on the other hand they have what we see some victims’ families never have and that is accountability, they have the person who killed their loved one and that in and of itself will provide peace knowing that person has been caught and is facing justice however difficult and however incomplete that justice might seem,” said Professor Jody Madeira, at Indiana University School of Law.

Police officer Jess Fisher, who was working for the New Carlisle Police Department at the time, also took the stand Monday.

He said he responded to the call for a missing child back in March of 2021.

He says the department used a drone to search around a large, wooded area near the apartment complex and the technology picked up a heat signature deep into the wooded area. 

“Located Grace in the middle of the wooded area,” he said. 

Fisher said Grace was already dead when police found her and shortly after, they got word that Hutchens may have been with Grace in the woods.

After questioning, another law enforcement official testified they found dirty towels in Hutchens’ bathroom they believe he used to clean up after he came from the woods after they say he murdered Grace.

Witness testimony also included Dr. Jared Brooks -- a forensic pathologist who performed Grace’s autopsy days after she died.

Brooks testified that he ruled Grace’s death a homicide saying she died from asphyxiation and she had internal and external injuries and bruises to her body.

He also said there were signs of molestation.

“There was trauma to the pelvic area sustained when Grace was alive."

Professor Madeira told ABC57 News Monday, adult court was really the only choice for this trial and she expects mental health treatment to be part of any sentence if Anthony Hutchens is convicted.

"This is one of those cases where nobody wins," she said. "We hate to see a 14-year-old tried as an adult but on the other hand the juvenile system has critical limitations and under Indiana state law basically if there is a murder suspect 12 years or over then that person has to be transferred to adult court."

None of the seven witnesses who testified Monday were cross examined by the defense.

The prosecution will a call a couple more witnesses Tuesday, while the defense said they don’t plan on calling any.

After the trial concludes the Judge, Jeffrey Sanford, will take everything under advisement.

Since it is a bench trial, the judge will make the final decision.

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