A Georgia mom and dad convicted of murdering their days' old baby daughter have had all charges dismissed—after they each spent almost 13 years in prison.
The district attorney apologized that they never received a fair trial.
The case began in May 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, where 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 percent. You don't have to be 90 percent sure. You don't have to be 80 percent sure. You don't have to be 51 percent sure."
The parents were sentenced to life in prison.
Over the years, with the help of the Georgia Public Defender Council, Wisconsin Innocence Project, some private firms, and Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit's public defenders office, the couple sought a new trial. While Muscogee Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith refused to grant one, the Supreme Court of Georgia 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 DA's office had illegally suppressed brain 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.
Initially, the government planned to retry the Debelbots. 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."
Her husband, Albert Debelbot, seemed a little less mellow. "I joined the Army protecting the same freedom that was taken from me. I lost a buddy in Iraq and [another] buddy lost his leg protecting the freedom we so believe in. We came home and the same system that we went to war to protect would never protect us."
As an attorneys for the Debelbots observed: "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." Sadly, there are far too many people languishing in prison as a result of panic over shaken baby syndrome: See this and this and this.
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