Last year, NPR looked at two dozen cases in which adults had been convicted of killing infants or young children, then later exonerated or given commutations. The investigation found a number of common themes in those cases. One of them was that prosecutors often relied on the subjective opinions of a medical examiner. Another was the understandable sorrow and anger a community feels when a child dies, which can nudge law enforcement officials and forensic specialists to see crimes in what may have only been accidental deaths.
Jeffrey Havard, 34, has been on death row in Parchman Penitentiary since 2002. He was convicted of murdering Chloe Britt, the six-month-old daughter of his girlfriend at the time. Havard claims he was giving the child a bath when, as he was lifting her from the tub, she slipped from his hands and fell, hitting her head on the toilet on the way down. By the time paramedics arrived with her at the hospital, Britt’s eyes were fixed and dilated, and she had turned blue. She died a short time later.
Dr. Steven Hayne, a Mississippi medical examiner in private practice, performed an autopsy on the infant. He claimed to have found the symptoms of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a diagnosis that comes with the implication that the last person to be alone with the child was the one who killed her. Because the symptoms can only be produced by violent shaking, the diagnosis also comes with a built-in indictment of the suspect’s state of mind. It’s a diagnosis that does much of the prosecutor’s work for him.