At long last, justice has been served in the case of three-year-old Charlette James Dawkins.
On Friday, July 26, 2019, family, friends, and supporters gathered in a courtroom in Camden, New Jersey to witness the sentencing of 23-year-old Travis Graham. In March of 2017, at the home where Travis lived with his son, his parents, his then-girlfriend Kaitlin, and her daughter, Charlette, Travis backhanded the little girl in the face, sending her headfirst down the stairs, where she suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and died in the hospital the following day.
“Brutal-looking” photos of the injured girl, according to Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Christine Shah, reveal a child whose face was “so bruised and so swollen that she was almost unrecognizable. The way that you would know it was her was from all the curly blonde hair.”
As Travis entered the courtroom, he glanced at the video screen displaying a photo of Charlette and just as quickly averted his gaze. While a 15-minute video comprised of photos from Charlette’s short life played on-screen, Travis stared down at the table in front of him.
The pathetic coward couldn’t even stand to look at the face of the precious little girl he murdered. I was kind of hoping the court would outfit him with some Clockwork Orange-style eyelid locks and clamp his thick head in a vise to force him to watch, but I digress.
Near the end of the rather lengthy court proceeding, Superior Court Judge Gwendolyn Blue took notice of Travis’s attitude: “I note that he looks stone-faced. I see nothing to suggest… that he’s remorseful.”
Travis’s attorney, Richard Sparaco, told the court that Travis had accepted responsibility for all of the charges against him. “But in particular, with regard to Charlette’s death, he has accepted the responsibility for his actions. The only thing that is good about this plea agreement is that we’ve avoided a protracted and what would be an extremely painful trial for the family members and extended family members of Charlette.”
Travis was charged in August 2018 of Charlette’s murder and, last month, pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter. On Friday, under the terms of a plea agreement, Judge Blue sentenced Travis to 30 years in state prison for Charlette’s death and for three unrelated robbery charges. Before he can be eligible for parole, he must serve a minimum of 25 years. Here’s hoping the parole board laughs him out of the room when that time eventually comes.
Charlette’s grandmother, Renay Rodriguez, had this to say when I asked if she thought Travis’s sentence was adequate: “Absolutely not! He destroyed our entire family! He should be in that prison for the rest of his life!”
“He took away my entire world,” said Charlette’s mother, Kaitlin Graham, who is currently seeking a divorce from Travis, “and deserves the same done to him.”
Before the sentencing, the court heard several poignant victim impact statements. Several supporters wore t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Charlette’s Voice” and “#Justice for Charlette,” as well as photos of her smiling face. Many family members were in tears throughout the proceeding.
Michele Eberle, a close friend of Charlette’s mother, Kaitlin Graham, told Superior Court Judge Gwendolyn Blue, “We are all here because of one little girl. She would really light up a room with her personality and her smile.”
Charlette’s grandfather, James McEneaney, listed in his statement the various milestones Charlette’s loved ones would never see Charlette reach. “The wedding day that won’t be celebrated. I will never get to meet my first great-grandchild from my first grandchild from my first child. These are the scars he’s left on the hearts of everyone that has loved my granddaughter, my ladybug. Some wish him peace and forgiveness, and that is their right. I, however, hope he sees her little face in his dreams and hears her giggles when he is alone, and it causes him to lose sleep and gives him no peace.”
Keirstyn Myers, Charlette’s godmother, published her entire statement on the Charlette’s Voice Facebook page. Because Keirstyn was such a big part of Charlette’s life — in fact, she is currently caring for Charlette’s younger sister — and because her words were so powerful and touching, below is her entire unedited statement.
“Hello, Im Keirstyn, I am one of Charlette’s many aunts and also Charlette’s godmother. I won’t lie, I’ve been pushing off writing this statement for a few reasons; One being that I know when I write this it will mean that we are finally here, we’re finally in court facing the boy who murdered an innocent little girl named Charlette which will make this nightmare feel even more real than it already does. The second reason being how do I put into words what you’ve done to our family, what you’ve done to me, what you’ve done to Charlette. Lastly where do I even begin? Someone told me that in order to move on you have to forgive, but I don’t know if the people who say that are people who have ever had to forgive someone who wasn’t even remotely sorry for what they did. Something so permanent that an apology won’t fix it not even a life sentence could fix it. The truth behind these words, the visions that may come with them, is the product some people’s poor choices & behavior. I know with this statement many people said to talk about the good and to share the memories of Charlette but I already have my own way of doing that. For me to begin healing I need some people in this room to hear what this family has truly been through. Not everyone in this room deserves to hear the good or relive the memories, but to hear the damage they’ve caused. We’re not in this court room for good reasoning, we’re here because an innocent life was taken and that won’t be forgotten because it simply can’t be forgotten because the absence of Charlette’s presence is too recognizable. However my faith is strong and I believe that for me to begin to forgive, that starts right here, right now, and with this statement. I know some of these words may sound cruel to the ear but this is our reality.
“There have been multiple nights where I’ve sat down with my notebook and pencil and swore tonight would be the night that I’d write this statement; the flashbacks from the hospital would start playing & it’d become to much so I’d put my notebook down & reassure myself that I will do this another night when I’m stronger. The next time I tried writing, I figured I would type my statement so that I could get the words out quicker and that it wouldn’t take as long to write the memories, the good and the bad. Do I start with the happy times? Do I share the memory of the first time I met Charlette in the hospital, just a few hours old, wrapped in a little blanket to keep warm or do I start with the last time I saw her ? The issue with that is I can’t figure out which counts as the last time? Was it in the hospital with the bruises showing, the freshened black eye, her head wrapped bandages, the uncovered burns and the heating blankets on her to keep her body temperature up so her organs would stay viable for donation? Or is it at her funeral when her skin was now cold to the touch, while wearing her pretty easter dress she picked out but wore early because she didn’t get to see the day it was intended for; her funereal where her hair was out of the bandages and washed and curled and the burns were covered by clothing and the bruises were poorly covered with make up? How about I start with Charlette taking her first steps to me or maybe the time when she ran back into my work because she ‘needed to hug & kiss me just one more time’ but little did we know those would be the last steps she would ever take towards me. The anger towards you is very much there, accompanied by hatred for what you did to an innocent 3 year old, disappointment for the time they narcaaned you just in time because why should you get to be saved when Charlette couldn’t be. The regret is there, which I always thought came from the day you walked into Charlette’s life & if it weren’t for the other two innocent lives you brought into the world the true regret would be for Sunday, February 25th, 1996 which is the day you came into this world. Someone like you doesn’t deserve a happy life when you intend to take exactly that from the innocent.
“When I have to talk about what you’ve done to my family I can’t help but feel my heart skip a beat. Again, where do I start? Do I start with the amount of people who’ve been diagnosed with depression? Maybe the anxiety because at least we have daily medicines and onset medicines to help with the attacks that come with it when we start to think about what you did to Charlette or when the thought of living forever without Charlette hits like a ton of bricks. Maybe I can try to explain the PTSD. There’s nothing like walking into the hospital I hoped to one day work at, instead become a place where nightmares happen. When every hallway I walk down there’s a memory. When I’m in the ER I can see myself running through the medal detector to get to Charlette; I can still hear the alarms going off that my purse set off. I still remember the kind security guard who came out & picked my purse up off the ground & grabbed my jacket from the floor & anything else I might have thrown off my body in desperate attempts to get to the inside of the hospital. Once that guard brought me through the door he did his best to calm me down so I could get the words out that my niece was being brought here due to a ‘stair fall.’ Within moments you & Your fiancé walked into the ER & the imagines of your clothing are burned into my head. Your tan work boots, grey sweatpants, & white shirt that had light blue paisley designs on it. I think your outfit sticks with me the most because your shirt was covered in Charlette’s blood. I remember waiting in the ER waiting for her helicopter to land when finally over the loud speaker we heard there was an incoming trauma on the helipad which meant Charlette had arrived or should I say Charlette’s body. We started making the calls to our relatives & rather quickly the ER was filled with familiar faces. For what seemed like an eternity, we were finally brought up to the family waiting room where a doctor came in to tell us the final update. He started with ‘I’m sorry but there’s no easy way to put this or any way to sugar coat it but this is where we talk about organ donation or pulling the plug.’ It was silent. I still haven’t figured out if the silence was from everyone trying to catch their breath, if everyone was crying to hard to make a sound, or if the silence came from my entire world stopping. My guess is it’s a mixture of the three. I remember seeing Charlette in the PICU for the first time and collapsing on her bed with a nurse rubbing my back to help me catch my breath. After spending time in the room with Charlette I walked right up to you. I asked you to walk me through your entire day and when you responded with the word ‘why?’ I simply told you that I needed to understand why she looks that way. You told me a story, one of your many stories might I add, not realizing that you had made some changes to it from when you told me it earlier in the evening. I knew right then and there that this was your doing. As the time went on I watched as detectives lined up to go into Charlette’s room & doctors & nurses tried to comfort us while still supporting Charlette. When I see the chapel I remember sitting in there with her grandad & begging god for a miracle, willing to make any promise if he could just heal her & let her survive this even offering to switch places with her. When I see the elevators I think of how many times I walked in & out of them to go up to her room or how I waited outside of those elevators to meet detective McGuire so that he could interview me. The images are endless. On the following day Tuesday, March 14th at 4:14 pm Charlette was pronounced dead & gained her wings. About two – two 1/2 hours later you left the hospital after Charlette’s mom told the nurses she was leaving me in her place. I stayed with Charlette until Thursday, March 16th until around 4:00 am when they had taken her to the OR to start her organ donation. The things I witnessed in those 4 days will forever haunt me. Me & you both have done things in life that people should never do, especially at such a young age. You killed an innocent little girl & I stayed and held her hand while they measured the bruises on her body and took countless pictures. I rubbed her face and talked to her while they preformed a rape kit on her. I watched as they pumped her body with things to keep her stable & as they put gel in her eyes to keep them preserved for her autopsy. You chose to deal with your choices by pumping your body with drugs and continuing to make poor decisions while I chose to start grief therapy & work on getting better so that I could be who my nieces need me to be. I need to be strong enough so that I can be Charlette’s Voice, I need to be strong enough so that I can be the person that other innocent children need me to be. I refer to you as a boy & I will never refer to you as a man because you are the furthest thing from that. I’ve said these exact words before and I will gladly say them again & this time I get to say them to you.
“I’m sure you’ve all read an article by now how Travis confessed to backhanding a 3 year old with such force that she spun & fell face first down a flight of steps. This ‘man’ felt that was okay because during his argument with a 3 year old she supposedly pinched him, in what world does a ‘man’ handle a child in this way? Someone who was trusted to keep her safe, protect her from bad people, only to be the person she was in the most danger with. For you putting your hands on an innocent, full of life little girl was not only wrong, but selfish. You robbed her of an entire life she was barely given the chance to experience. You robbed us, her family of getting to watch her grow up. We will never watch her wave good bye to us on her first day of school, we will never teach her how to ride a bike. She will never experience the tooth fairy, we’ll never get to watch her win the big game or competition for whatever sport she would’ve played. We will never help her pick out prom dresses, we will never watch her walk across stage to receive that diploma she would’ve worked so hard for. We’ll never get to help her decide on a career. We’ll never get to watch her grow up & fall in love, get married or become a mother. We will never be able to watch what her life would have become because of you and your cowardly actions. You are the furthest thing from a man. You, Travis Graham, are a coward.
“When you took Charlette’s life you also took a huge piece of mine. I’m sure many can relate when I say that your first niece/nephew will always hold a special part of your heart. They’re the closest thing you have to having your own child. Sometimes if you’re really lucky, they come out just like you. One moment you’re a carefree teenager doing your own thing and then the next thing you know, you’re an aunt/uncle and this little tiny person consumes the biggest piece of your heart; a piece so big that it makes you realize that you’ve never loved someone like this before, a piece of your heart so big you would never willingly give to someone because you know that if anything ever happened to that person, you would struggle to ever be okay again. At the same time, you don’t even bother to put up a fight to protect your heart because it’s theirs before you even have time to realize it. When there’s a sudden twist in fate, your entire world shifts. When that twist that knocks the wind out of you happens to be the phone call that will forever change your life, you will then and only then understand true love and true heartbreak. True excitement is when you find out you’re going to become an aunt/uncle; true love is when you see that baby for the first time and you lock eyes and know that it’s you two against the world. In that exact moment, you know that this child will forever be your bestfriend and that you will always have their back. As that child starts to grow up you will realize that you unknowingly veiled to never abide by bedtime, and that just one more cookie isn’t really as big of a deal as their parent makes it out to be, or that ten more minutes playing before bath time isn’t too much to ask for. You somehow became this little person’s sidekick, partner in crime, best friend, attorney, and most importantly, one of their favorite people in the whole entire world. Lastly, true heartbreak is when that child is ripped from this world; when that child is ripped away from you by a coward who lacks self-control. When all you can do is sit beside that childs’s hospital bed until their final minutes and hold that babies hand and rub their belly one last time and reassure them they are loved and apologize countless times for not knowing someone was hurting them. When your kissing both cheeks, their little nose, both of their tiny hands, all ten fingers and running your thumb over their eyelashes, and when you hold their hand flat against your face since that tiny hand will never reach out for your touch again, all while a machine is breathing for them, that is when you experience true heartbreak. I read that when writing your statement you can express opinions or give suggestions to the Judge as to what you feel would be a fair sentence for the inmate. Your honor, I would love nothing more than to see this boy serve the rest of his life in prison. Why should he have the chance to ever live a happy life again when Charlette never will? Respectfully & truthfully no amount of time will ever be enough to pay for what he did. However, whatever your sentencing is I hope you don’t find comfort for the slightest second by thinking that your life wasting away will ever make up for taking Charlette’s life away. I want you to know and to fully understand that your life wasting away doesn’t justify your actions of taking a life by any means. When this journey is over and the hesrings are finished and the final court date has been held, I will leave this court room with Justice for Charlette. We will live without fear of the future because you’re locked away and can’t hurt anyone else. Charlette’s name is listed 31 times in this statement because her name deserves to be heard, it’s allowed to be spoken, Charlette will not be forgotten. Lastly I will leave here forever being Charlette’s Voice.”
Charlette’s maternal grandmother, Renay Rodriguez, offered an equally heartrending statement, which she graciously provided to me via email to post here.
“I was going to start this off with..today is a hard day…but we all know today is a hard day. Today we get some kind of justice for our baby. So Let me start of by telling you a little bit about Charlette because after all this is what today is about isn’t it? Charlette James was the glue that kept our family together. She was the first grandchild and had a special bond with so many people. Charlette was born on December 11, 2013 during a snow storm. She was born on her due date, such a rarity. She was so calm and just took in everything around her. Charlette James was taken from us on March 14, 2017 during a snow storm. She left this earth the same way she entered it. With an abundance of love.
“Charlette had a laugh that made everyone around her laugh. It was so infectious you couldn’t help yourself. Her whole face would light up and she would have this twinkle in her eye. She had the most intense head popping hugs. She wanted you to feel the love all the way down to your toes.
“Charlette James had so many little names. For me, she was NeNes baby, for her Abuelo she was his C-Webb, for Granddad she was his ladybug and there were so many more and she knew every single one of them!!
“When Charlette came into my house the first person she looked for was her Titi. See Marisol is only 3 years older then Charlette was. Titi was one of her very favorite people. Then she would go down the list. JJ who was only 22 month older and then she would look for all of her aunts and uncles. Her Uncle Bubba, Tio Antny, Aunt Becca, Aunt Mimmy, Aunt Holly and Tio mamu. Then when she got to the bottom of the list off she was to look for her most favorite, her abuelo. See my husband would work nights and so had to sleep during the day. So Charlette would climb the steps in search of her ABUELO. She knew he was sleeping but she didn’t care. She would burst into his room and yell with confidence, because she knew he would be excited to see her, ABUELO IM HERE!! She would climb up in bed and give him a kiss and a hug. He would then return all of the love. They had a special bond along with a love of jalepeno Pringle’s.
“Charlette, Marisol and JJ were more close then any of us could be. They were almost the same age. Everything we did was always asked, is Charlie coming to? She was their little sidekick. Christmas portraits they had done every year together. The little 3 amigos. It has been extremely hard on them since her passing. They don’t understand what happened and why she’s not here with them. But now as they get older, Marisol almost 9 and JJ 7, it’s not so easy to brush it under the carpet with excuses anymore, How do I explain to them that their favorite person was taken at someone else’s hands on purpuse?
“I am confident in saying every person in this room all have different feelings about Travis. Charlette was NeNes baby and I hurt every single day knowing she’s not here but I find comfort in knowing that she is in a place that I will see her little sassy beautiful face again one day.
“I know not 1 person in this room wants to hear the words healing or forgiveness. I am a woman of faith and everyone knows that. Forgiveness is for the person that hurts not the one that caused the pain. To try and forgive someone that has hurt someone you love so badly and destroyed your entire family seems impossible. Our family has been destroyed to say the least. We all have pointed fingers at who was to blame and who wasn’t. The only person to blame is Travis. I am not in control of any of that or what happened but I am in control of my own feelings weather others agree or not. I have had this conversation with people that I love and I respect that they are no where near where I am. I forgive! I have no other choice. I will not allow anyone to have that kind of power over my emotions and how I feel. Forgiveness is for the one giving it not for the recipient. I don’t want to live the rest of my life full of hatred. I love Charlette with everything in me and I know how much she loved everyone! Didn’t matter if she knew you for her whole 3 years or just met you a few minutes ago. I choose to leave this courtroom knowing that she has some kind of Justice but also leave with love and forgiveness in my heart. Charlette will forever live in my heart and my memories. Just because I choose to forgive doesn’t mean that I don’t want the appropriate justice for NeNes baby. Justice must be served and served swiftly, I just choose not to dwell on the pain and anguish that this has caused so many of us and especially Charlette. She should be here living her best life. Growing up with her sister and making friends and beautiful memories with her family but she’s not here. He has taken all of that from her. I know a lot of people Will to say…but I lost this and I lost that. We have all lost so much but not nearly as much as Charlette lost, so I do feel that his sentence should fit his crime.
“Your honor thank you for allowing me this time to address the court.”
Offering consolation to Charlette’s loved ones, Judge Blue described Charlette as “a little girl who lived a short life but a huge life.” Saying Charlette lived in the family’s memories and in their hearts, she comforted them by saying, “You didn’t lose your granddaughter. She’s here.”
In the spirit of keeping Charlette’s memory alive, I asked her mom, Kaitlin, and her grandmother, Renay, a few questions about the little girl with the sunny smile and the glowing halo of blonde curls. Their responses (edited only for formatting) give us more insight into the precious light Charlette brought into the lives of everyone who met her.
Renay’s first statement to me really seems to encapsulate her granddaughter: “Charlette loves everything!”
Charlette’s favorite song, according to her mommy, was You Are My Sunshine, which gave my heart a painful twinge; I used to sing that song to both of my kids at bedtime when each was Charlette’s age. Charlette loved to watch any “princess related” movie or TV show. Renay told me, “Her favorite show used to be Sophia the First, but she grew out of that. She loved anything to do with princesses… She loved anything sparkly and girly but loved to dress up as superheroes and loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Among Charlette’s favorite people were her mommy, her NeNe and Abuelo (Renay and her husband, Javier), Aunt Teir (Keirstyn Myers), and Uncle Bubba, but both Kaitlin and Renay agreed that she had a special bond with Renay’s youngest children, Marisol and Jonah (better known as JJ). She loved going anywhere her Titi and Tio were, and from Renay’s victim impact statement above, it sounds like Marisol and JJ felt the same about her.
When I asked about Charlette’s personality, Renay replied, “Oh, where do I start? She was the most loving little girl. Never had to even raise your voice to her! She was the light to our world. She was so sassy at times, and we all laughed at it and just loved her sassy side.”
“She was an absolute ray of sunshine with a heart of gold and an independent spirit,” Kaitlin added. “She was sassy beyond belief, which was always my favorite part.”
Both women recounted some of their cherished memories of Charlette. “My favorite is when she would run in the house and give me one of her head-popping hugs,” Renay reminisced, “and when she would climb the steps in search of her Abuelo, yelling, ‘Abuelo, I’m here!'”
“My absolute favorite memory,” Kaitlin told me, “will always be the first time I looked into my beautiful baby girl’s eyes for the first time.”
Kaitlin plans to honor her daughter’s legacy “by telling anyone and everyone only the good memories.” She doesn’t want Charlette to become the face of child abuse, explaining, “She was so much more than how her life ended. She was the brightest part of my life, and I’ll always have a piece missing… I will honor her by telling her sister about her always. That’s the biggest honor I can think of, is her sister knowing every detail [so] she feels like she knew [Charlette] for her whole life.”
For her part, Renay said, “I personally plan to just share her pictures and her videos. I miss her laugh and smile so much. We will make sure that [her sister] feels like she never misses out on having [Charlette] by her side growing up.”
Every child I write about on this blog has a piece of my heart, but Charlette’s story in particular has affected me deeply. My sincerest appreciation to Kaitlin and Renay for sharing with us their memories of their little ray of sunshine who shone on this earth so briefly but so brightly that her impact will never be forgotten.
Click here for more of my coverage on Charlette’s case.
Sources: The Courier-Post, Patch.com, Charlette’s Voice Facebook page, Renay Rodriguez, Kaitlin Graham