Ky. Mother Faces Possible Death Penalty After Toddler's Death. Her Defense Lawyers Blame Social Media

Erica Lawson's toddler daughter Elena died on July 30, 2023 at a hospital in Tennessee

<p>Bell County Detention Center</p> Erica Lawson

Bell County Detention Center

Erica Lawson

A Kentucky mother is behind bars after prosecutors claim she abused her daughter so severely that it resulted in the toddler's death. However, her defense attorneys claim rumors that have circulated on social media have tainted the case.

Erica Lawson, 21, has been charged with second-degree murder, failure to report child dependency neglect or abuse, first-degree criminal abuse and first-degree wanton endangerment in connection with the death of her 17-month-old daughter Elena, online court records reviewed by PEOPLE show.

The Middlesboro Police Department arrested Lawson in 2023 after Elena died at a Tennessee hospital on July 30, 2023 due to her injuries. Lawson is now being held in Bell County, Ky., on a $1 million bond.

According to WBIR-10, Elena's uncle went to police before her death to report suspected child abuse, but authorities were unable to locate Elena at the time.

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Commonwealth's Attorney Lisa Fugate is seeking the death penalty against Lawson, WATE reports. Lawson's defense attorneys are fighting against it, claiming that social media rumors have plagued the case. The defense has asked the state to prove why Lawson's case qualifies as a death penalty case.

"I think that social media is an important element while discussing this case," Greg Coulson, one of Lawson's defense attorneys, tells PEOPLE. "There's an incredible amount of social media views and hundreds of thousands of interactions that are patently false and contradicted by the evidence."

The defense also claims that past statements by Fugate, who previously claimed Elena was sexually abused, are false. According to the defense's motion to dismiss the death penalty, cited by WATE, there was “zero evidence that any person sexually abused the child,” nor that any male DNA was found on Elena. In response, Fugate claimed that more testing was currently underway, the outlet reports.

"The medical examiner found no evidence of sexual abuse," Coulson tells PEOPLE.

Lawson's defense attorneys are also requesting a change of venue for the trial citing threats and the public's interest in the case, WBIR-10 reports. The defense also claims false social media assertions regarding Elena's death have spread on social media.

PEOPLE reached out to Fugate for comment, but did not hear back. Lawson's next court date is scheduled for June 5. Coulson says that Lawson will plead not guilty and that the defense "will continue to defend our client vigorously."

If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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