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Lawyer: Mother tweaked will to exclude daughter

LAWRENCEVILLE - Muriel O'Connell woke up the night of August 4, 2006, to find her daughters eyeballing her in bed, watching her breathe in the dark. Her head on a pillow, looking up, she asked the girls what they were doing, an associate of O'Connell's testified Thursday.

"We're just here, just checking on you," said attorney Chris Ballar, O'Connell's estate planner, in recalling what O'Connell said the girls had replied.

Two days later, prosecutors say, O'Connell was strangled to death in the same bed.

Ballar, the state's final witness, told jurors Muriel O'Connell tweaked her will in the final months of her life to exclude her daughter, Brenda O'Connell, because the teen wanted her dead.

"I've got to get her out of here," Ballar said the victim told him. "The conversation ... was always about Brenda."

Like other friends, Ballar said he urged Muriel O'Connell to call police. Others have testified the victim feared losing custody of her other adopted daughter, Catherine O'Connell, who is on trial with her sister for killing their mother.

In the event of her death, Ballar said his client wished for the Division of Children and Family Services to take custody of Brenda O'Connell; she hoped family members would receive the other girl, Ballar said.

Instead, both girls are facing life in prison.

Testimony in the ongoing murder trial Thursday continued to flesh out the portrait of a mother and her adopted daughters teetering on the edge of catastrophe.

Catherine and Brenda O'Connell are charged with murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in the death of the 57-year-old Buford resident.

Prosecutors say the girls carefully orchestrated their mother's August 2006 death, strangled her in her sleep and planted a knife in her hands. Defense attorneys argue the girls were defending themselves against an abusive parent who had adopted them from a Guatemalan orphanage.

In another twist, a doctor testified that Catherine O'Connell had tried to kill herself in January 2006 - by way of self-strangulation.

Dr. Amy Johnson, formerly of Gwinnett Medical Center, said the teen tied a bandanna so tightly around her throat it burst capillaries in her face, nearly killing her.

"She stated she did not want to be here, to be alive," said Johnson, the first witness called defense attorneys.

The suicide attempt stemmed from an argument Catherine O'Connell had with her mother regarding a $600 cell phone bill the teen racked up, another witness testified.

Afterward, Muriel O'Connell submitted her daughters to a psychiatric hospital and to a bilingual psychiatrist who seemed to relate well to them.

The defense could call one or both of the girls to the stand today. Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Tom Davis, who's presiding, told jurors he expects the trial will conclude sometime around Wednesday next week.