Three years after the death of her baby, a mother finally has some answers

Jarri Clanton picked up her nearly 2-month-old daughter after work at 1 a.m., and the baby’s father put her in a car seat after watching her at his place in Durham.

Karina Alexis Noel appeared to be asleep before Clanton drove to Raleigh that night in May 2015 and carried the baby up to their apartment.

“I took her out of the car seat,” Clanton said, “and I knew something wasn’t right.”

Karina, barely 9 pounds, wouldn’t wake up. A large bruise had darkened one of her chubby cheeks, and her eyes were rolling around randomly.

Clanton texted Alex Noel, Karina’s father, and asked what was happening. And she called 911.

Doctors later said Karina’s brain was bleeding, a result of blunt force trauma. She died the next day, after she was taken off life support.

For more than three years, Clanton has tried to adjust to not knowing exactly what led to the death of her baby, who wiggled her hands like she was dancing. She has been on a journey to rebuild her life, one she wasn’t sure she wanted to live after Karina died.

Clanton, 27, took a big step in that journey last week. She confronted Karina’s 26-year-old father, who pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison.

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Jarri Clanton and her daughter Karina Noel in early 2015. Courtesy of Jarri Clanton

The day in court marked the final step in a relationship that started about four years ago.

Clanton and Noel met while they working at Papa John’s. He was 22, and she was 23.

“He was a really nice person,” Clanton said during an interview this week. “He looked like he wanted a best friend.”

They flirted. She was “his girl” for about four months before she found out she was pregnant.

Clanton, a senior at N.C. Central University at the time, decided to keep the baby. Noel was frustrated because he was trying to get his life together, she said.

Karina was born March 10, 2015.

About two months later, Clanton started a job at a call center that required her to attend training from 3 p.m. to midnight. Noel was watching Karina, as he had done many times before, when he texted Clanton to say he was being kicked out of the place he was staying.

Clanton said she didn’t want to jeopardize her new job.

“I can’t leave right now,” she responded.

‘I was numb’

Later on, in the ambulance on the way to WakeMed, Clanton prayed that Karina would be OK. The baby wasn’t responsive at first, but then paramedics gave her a shot.

“She started crying” after they gave her shot, Clanton said. “I felt better.”

Karina was taken into into the emergency room, and Clanton was escorted to a dark waiting room. When the chaplain walked in, Clanton said, she knew her little girl wasn’t going to make it.

“I knew that as a mom,” she said.

Karina was in a coma.

“I was so hurt,” Clanton said. “I was numb.”

Noel called Clanton and asked how their baby was doing.

“And I was like, ‘What do mean is she OK?’” Clanton recalled. “‘What did you do to her? Who did this to her?’ And he wouldn’t tell me.”

The next day, on May 8, 2015, Karina was taken off of life support. Clanton and her step-father prayed over Karina, whose leg moved.

“Maybe she is trying to tell me she is going to be OK,” Clanton recalled thinking.

The hardest part, Clanton said, was walking out of the hospital without her baby.

“I didn’t know how to feel,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. ... I lost the love of my life.”

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An arrest

Noel was initially charged with felony child abuse, but he was charged with murder after Karina died.

Clanton visited Noel in jail once, before the court hearing last week. She needed to know what happened to her baby. He didn’t tell her.

“He was trying to beat around the bush,” she said.

Clanton eventually went back to work at the call center, where she listened to customers complain about their issues with television cable. She resisted the urge to tell them their problems were small by comparison.

“Let me tell you about this world and how it works,” she would think to herself.

She said she walked through life like a robot, going on to work different part-time and full-time jobs. Nothing really interested her until she started working at one child-care center and then another.

Now Clanton is a teacher assistant for pre-kindergarten, a job she wants to build a career around. She also works part-time at a home health-care agency.

In September 2017, Clanton sustained a minor injury when she was struck by a drunk driver. The experience of going to court helped her gain enough confidence to walk into the Durham County courtroom last week to face Noel.

“I felt like God was preparing me for this day,” she said.

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Alex Noel

At first, Clanton wanted Noel to go to trial. But she decided to support the plea deal, she said, because it was time for her to move forward.

She saw Noel during the hearing.

“He looked at me like he just wanted his best friend,” she said.

Noel’s attorney, Mark Edwards, said in court that Noel was diagnosed in jail with post traumatic stress disorder and bi-polar disorder.

Noel was taken from his mother when he was young after she was seen abusing him in front of a Chapel Hill homeless shelter, Edwards said. Noel stayed with relatives and foster families until he was eventually adopted.

Assistant district attorney Cindy Kenney began to describe in court the evidence in the case. Clanton’s anxiety started to rise, and she began tapping on her chair.

She wanted to strangle Noel, she said. Instead, she walked out the courtroom. On her way out, she heard some of the details she had been wanting all along.

Noel had become frustrated that night and threw Karina down in a Pack ‘N Play, causing fatal head trauma, Kenney said.

Clanton found comfort in knowing that Noel didn’t intentionally hurt their child, she said.

Clanton returned to the courtroom and called Noel a coward for not telling her right away what happened. She might have been able to save Karina.

She told him she felt sorry for him because he never felt love like she has for her daughter.

“For me to be in this much pain,” she said, “that’s love.”

Clanton said she felt relieved as she left the courthouse.

“I finally got my closure. I got my peace,” she said. “I got my sanity back. I got my power back. And I can just keep walking and going and doing what I was supposed to do. “

Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.