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From left to right: Valena Beety, Emily Girvan-Dutton, Tasha Shelby, Astrid Parrett.
Courtesy of Valena Beety.

A Star Witness Recanted. But Tasha Shelby is Still Imprisoned for ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ Junk-Science.

by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg

In a Mississippi courtroom more than twenty years ago, a jury was tasked with deciding if 25-year-old Tasha Shelby should be executed for the murder of two-year-old Bryan Thompson IV, a crime that likely never occurred. The Mississippi Second Circuit Court District Attorney’s Office alleged that Shelby had shaken Thompson and hit his head against an object in their home in Biloxi—despite the fact that Shelby says the boy, who had a history of neurological issues, appeared to be having a seizure that night.

“I didn’t know what the death penalty really meant,” Shelby told The Appeal in a phone call from Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. “I thought that meant that they would kill you that night.”

The jury came back with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

“I remember just putting my head down and I, out loud, but in a whisper, I just said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’” said Shelby. “I just wanted to be able to live.”

In the years since her 2000 conviction, the case against her has unraveled. The state’s star witness, the medical examiner who ruled Thompson’s death a homicide, has said he was wrong. But prosecutors have fought her appeals. She’s now awaiting a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, which can order a hearing, affirm, or overturn her conviction.

Numerous exonerations and studies have shown that symptoms associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) can be caused by short-distance falls or seizures, among other factors. Earlier this year, a New Jersey judge called the SBS diagnosis “akin to ‘junk science.’” But people continue to be charged, convicted, and sent to prison based on a widely discredited diagnosis.

“Even when the science has changed, even when there’s proof that false evidence was presented at trial, it’s still so so hard to reverse the conviction,” said Valena Beety, a member of Shelby’s legal team and deputy director of the Academy for Justice at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. [Disclosure: The Appeal receives funding from the Academy for Justice at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.]

“Prosecutors will still fight to uphold the conviction,” Beety said, “even when there’s no reliability to it.”

In the early morning hours of May 30, 1997, Shelby, then 22 years old, said she was in bed with her newborn girl. About two weeks earlier, she’d given birth by emergency cesarean, according to a hospital discharge summary. She was engaged to her daughter’s father, who was at work that night.

Thompson, her fiance’s son from a previous relationship, was asleep in his room. While in bed, she heard a thump and went to check on Thompson, she told The Appeal. She found him on the ground, where he appeared to be having a seizure. She called her fiance. He came home and all four rushed to the hospital. Thompson never regained consciousness.

When the family got home, Shelby told The Appeal, agents from child protective services were there. She said they ripped her daughter from her arms. She’s only seen her once since then. Her three-year-old son from a prior relationship had spent the previous night at a relative’s home; she has not seen him since.

“That is something that no one will ever be able to give back to me—those moments that I’ve lost as a mom,” Shelby said.

There’s no shortage of evidence to suggest that Shelby is innocent. Her legal team has retained expert opinions from a biomechanical engineer and a forensic pathologist who concluded that Thompson was not abused.

But possibly the most powerful piece of evidence they’ve uncovered is from LeRoy Riddick, the medical examiner who originally ruled Thompson’s death a homicide. In 2018, Riddick testified at a hearing before the Circuit Court of Harrison County that Thompson wasn’t murdered.

Riddick amended the manner of death on Thompson’s death certificate from homicide to accident. He told the Court he now believed that Thompson had fallen and suffered a seizure and that the child’s asthma had also contributed to his death. (Riddick died last year.)

“I made a mistake,” he testified.

Riddick said he did not know that Thompson’s family had a history of seizures or that Thompson had an appointment to see a neurologist a week after his death. Shelby’s grandmother had told the police she had observed Thompson experience a possible seizure. Shelby’s fiance had testified at trial that Thompson’s eyes had been bloodshot for several weeks.

But, the Court wasn’t persuaded by Riddick’s testimony and denied Shelby’s petition to toss out her conviction.

Even though the State’s case has come undone, Shelby, now 47, remains in prison. She’ll spend the rest of her life there unless the governor, the courts, or local prosecutors intervene. Instead of fighting the case, state Attorney General Lynn Fitch or District Attorney W. Crosby Parker could petition the court to reverse the conviction, said Beety, Shelby’s attorney. The State Attorney General’s office told The Appeal in an email they do not comment on active litigation. Parker’s office did not respond to messages from The Appeal.

Or, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves can grant Shelby’s recently submitted application for clemency.

“The truth is there and I am innocent,” Shelby said. “He has the power to give me back some of what was taken from me.”


In the news


Reporter James Finn toured the old death row unit at Angola that will soon house teenagers. Louisiana plans to send kids from juvenile facilities to the unit if they’re “acting up.” [James Finn / The Advocate] From The Appeal: Louisiana Wants to Jail Kids on Angola Prison’s Old Death Row

Child protective services agencies routinely enter homes without a warrant, a trend that disproportionately impacts Black & Latino families. When one mother refused them entry, as is her right, the agency called the NYPD. [Eli Hager / ProPublica]

Two comedians are suing over an alleged “policing for profit” scheme at the Atlanta airport, which has led to the seizure of over $1 million from passengers. Over 50 percent of these “drug enforcement” stops involve Black people. Drugs are almost never found. [Kate Brumback / Associated Press]

A South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation found that the newly formed Pembroke Park Police Department hired several cops with problematic backgrounds. [Lisa J. Huriash / South Florida Sun-Sentinel]

Mental health professionals are in the 911 call center in Durham, North Carolina, as part of a pilot program to better connect people with help. [Nadia Kounang / CNN]

Michigan state senators introduced a bill that would punish parents and medical professionals with up to life in prison for providing gender-affirming care to a minor—“for refusing to torture trans kids, then, parents, caregivers, and doctors could spend the rest of their lives in prison,” writes Natasha Lennard. [Natasha Lennard / The Intercept]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Smart Communications, a for-profit Florida company that sells phone, videochat, and email-like services to prisons and jails, told at least one sheriff’s department that it can live “the resort life” on a trip to Florida.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced that a secret informant program operated by the Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office in Orange County, California, violated accused people’s constitutional rights.

In Georgia, the Fulton County Sheriff wants to move people from his overcrowded jail into beds leased from Atlanta’s detention center. But a recent study from the American Civil Liberties Union finds nearly half of the detainees at his jail haven’t been formally charged. Advocates say many could be released.

The recent in-custody death of a young Brazilian asylum-seeker has led to renewed scrutiny of one of the nation’s cruelest ICE prisons. Detainees say the tragedy has left them traumatized, and that conditions haven’t improved.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate here.

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