Monday, September 17, 2018

Hardly Solomonic

In 2002, Jeffrey Havard was charged with the killing of a 6-month-old baby. The state alleged it was a clear case of shaken baby syndrome. Mr. Havard insisted he had accidentally dropped the infant.

At trial, Dr. Stephen Hayne testified that Chloe Madison Britt had clearly been shaken to death. He compared the injuries to those one would receive in a car crash or from a fall from a significant height.

If that name sounds familiar it's because he was the subject of Radley Balko's excellent book The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (click here for my review). Dr. Hayne made his bones in Mississippi by claiming to have performed an obscene number of autopsies and giving police and prosecutors what they needed in order to obtain convictions.

This case was no exception.

Mr. Havard was found guilty and was sentenced to death. However, on Friday, Mr. Havard's motion for new trial was partially granted by Adams County Circuit Judge Forrest Johnson (a former prosecutor also mentioned in Mr. Balko's book). Judge Johnson stated that the evidence presented at the hearing wasn't sufficient for him to question the validity of the jury's verdict but, it caused him to question whether the death sentence was appropriate. As a result, Mr. Havard was removed from death row and a new punishment trial was ordered.

Last year Dr. Hayne had a change of heart. He testified at a hearing on Mr. Havard's motion for new trial and changed his opinion. He now says that the injuries to Chloe that he observed could have been generated from a short fall if the baby fell on its head.

In 2009 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that the use of the term shaken baby syndrome be stopped and replaced with the term abusive head trauma. This was in response to a series of studies that discredited the diagnosis.

Renowned pathologist Michael Baden reviewed the evidence and came to the conclusion that the baby's injuries were the result of a fall on her head and not from being shaken to death.

This case raises some important questions, however. While it is good that Mr. Havard's death sentence was vacated because of the testimony at the hearing on the motion for new trial, it is confounding that the original conviction wasn't vacated as well.

The state's chief witness has recanted his original testimony. He changed his theory from the baby being shaken to death to the baby dying of injuries suffered in a fall. Shaking a baby to death is clearly an intentional or knowing act -- that is murder. However, dropping a baby isn't evidence of a deliberate act. If Judge Johnson believes a death sentence is inappropriate, how does he square that with leaving the conviction in place?

It's almost as if the judge is somehow considering the change in Dr. Haynes' testimony as more of a mitigating factor. And that's just plain wrong. When the state's chief medical witness changes his opinion of the cause of death, that casts doubt upon the jury's verdict regarding Mr. Havard's guilt. Take away that medical opinion and you are left without a single witness who can testify that Mr. Havard shook the baby to death.

The only reason I can surmise for Judge Johnson's actions is that he's afraid that other convictions based on the theory of shaken baby syndrome could be placed in jeopardy if Dr. Hayne testified on behalf of the state. Maybe he's right.

But it doesn't fucking matter. Judge Johnson's job was to make a decision in this specific case based upon the evidence presented at a hearing on a motion for new trial. It was not his concern whether any other convictions could be challenged on the same grounds.

Judge Johnson's half-assed ruling just goes to show that he's more interested in politics than he is in justice.

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