"Too often, we would rather believe that good people did a bad thing for no reason than believe that a bad thing happened to good people for no reason," said one of the appeals attorneys involved, Andrew Fleischman of Ross & Pines in Atlanta. It explains what happened in this case and what happens too often in America:
Late in May of 2008, just a day after Ashley and Albert Debelbot brought their seemingly healthy baby girl, McKenzy, home, a bump was discovered on her forehead. The Debelbots brought her to Martin Army Hospital in Fort Benning. She died a day later.
The couple was accused of crushing her skull.
At their joint trial, their defense attorneys failed to present alternative explanations for the baby's death, including the fact that the baby may have been born with serious birth defects, exacerbated by a difficult delivery.
The defense attorneys also failed to object when, in closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Sadhana Dailey told the jury that the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard "does not mean beyond all doubt." She added: "It does not mean to a mathematical certainty. Which means we don't have to prove that 90%. You don't have to be 90% sure. You don't have to be 80% sure. You don't have to be 51% sure."
The parents were sentenced to life in prison.
Over the years, with the help of The Georgia Public Defender Council, Wisconsin Innocence Project and Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit's public defenders office, the couple sought a new trial. While Muscogee Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith III refused to grant one, the Georgia Supreme Court eventually heard the case last year.
This time, the defense presented medical evidence that the baby did indeed have a serious brain defect, and added that the district attorney's office had illegally suppressed CT scans that would have helped the defense make its case. The court unanimously overturned the Debelbots' convictions, saying they had been denied their Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel.
Whereupon District Attorney Julia Slater announced, "The plan at this point is to try it again."
But just a few weeks ago, District Attorney Mark Jones, who inherited the case, decided not to do that. He told the Supreme Court that there was "mounting medical evidence that says the child was born this way" — that is, with a fatal brain defect. Then he went a step further and apologized to the Debelbots, on behalf of his office, for "not getting a fair trial."
This seemed to shock Ashley Debelbot almost more than being freed from a life sentence. Asked in a press conference how she felt about the DA's apology, she replied: "I thought I would never hear that word being said to me, ever. Once you've been incarcerated, the word 'sorry' never comes to you at all."
She added, "I do not hold any bitterness toward anybody."
Wow. I doubt I could achieve such grace. In America, we've convicted over 1,600 people of shaken baby syndrome since 2001 — an increasingly dubious diagnosis. As Slate reports, "Over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents — including short falls — can produce the same constellation of injuries" that supposedly "prove" a baby was shaken.
Bad things do happen to good people and to their kids. Blaming their parents on flimsy or zero evidence only makes things worse.