Attorneys for a woman convicted of capital murder in the death of her then-fiance’s son are once again asking the court for a new trial.
This time, the request is partly based on what defense attorneys say is contradictory testimony made by child abuse pediatrician Dr. Scott Benton, as first reported in Mississippi Today’s “Shaky Science, Fractured Families” series.
The attorneys for Tasha Shelby also say one of the jurors who convicted her in 2000 was the great-uncle of the deceased child in the case.
Both the Attorney General’s office and a spokeswoman from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which employs Benton, declined to answer questions or provide a comment for this story.
Shelby has been in prison for 25 years following the death of her then-fiance’s 2-year-old son Bryan Thompson, or little Bryan. While Benton was not involved in her trial in 2000, he was the state’s only expert witness at her 2018 Post-Conviction Relief hearing.
The hearing came shortly after the medical examiner Dr. Leroy Riddick changed the manner of death on little Bryan’s death certificate from homicide to accident after reexamining medical records and his own files. He concluded in an affidavit filed with the court that a family history of seizures may have played a role in the toddler’s death.
“If, at the time of the autopsy and trial, I had known about Bryan Thompson IV’s seizures days before his collapse, I would have approached the case differently. Moreover, the forensic evidence supporting ‘The Shaken Baby Syndrome’ and severe brain reactions to minor trauma has changed significantly since 1997,” he wrote. “Given this information, it is likely that my conclusions might have been different.”
Shelby’s attorneys brought forth four witnesses: a forensic pathologist, a biomechanics expert, a neurologist and Riddick. The state brought forth Benton, who maintained that Bryan died from blunt force trauma to the head with “acceleration/deceleration,” or shaking, involved.
The Harrison County judge denied Shelby’s petition. In upholding that decision, the Court of Appeals cited Benton’s testimony as determinative: his willingness to say what had been said at her first trial effectively negated the new perspectives her attorneys presented.
The hearing was “a battle of experts,” the court wrote. “Dr. Benton was a qualified expert witness, and he responded to each of the points raised by Shelby’s experts.”
Now, however, Shelby’s attorneys are comparing statements Benton made in Shelby’s hearing to statements he made for the defense in an Alabama case against Michael Mixon last year.
“If Scott Benton had testified for Shelby the way he testified for Mixon, she would be free. Because there would be no evidence for the state to support the fallacy that she shook the child to death,” Shelby’s attorney Valena Beety told Mississippi Today.
Shelby, who had given birth to her daughter two weeks earlier via a C-section, told police she was in her bed the night of May 30, 1997, when she heard a loud thump from Bryan’s room. When she went into his room, she said he was on the floor gasping for air and exhibiting signs of a seizure. She and her then-fiance immediately took him to the hospital, where he died the next day.
Hospital records show his brain bleed was “trace in size” and only on one side of the brain, according to Shelby’s attorneys.
But by the time of the autopsy, the bleed was larger and had spread to both sides of the brain. The filing says Benton did not distinguish between the two, but only cited the large bleed on both sides of the brain in the autopsy, which he said supported the idea the toddler’s injuries could not have come from a fall or seizure.
“Dr. Benton testified Bryan was shaken because he had diffuse subarachnoid hemorrhage, and that impact on one side of the head would not explain the diffuse hemorrhage,” the filing says.
The filing also refers to testimony Benton gave about bridging veins being the cause of little Bryan’s bleed. Benton said shaking was the only cause of such an injury, but more recent research has shown small vessels, or minimally traumatic bleeding in the outer layer of tissue that covers the brain, can cause subdural hemorrhage, according to a diagnostic radiology expert.
In the Alabama case, however, Benton described a litany of causes of brain bleeds, only the first of which is trauma, in detail on the stand.
The filing also points out a seeming contradiction in testimony Benton gave in the Alabama case about the possibility of a seizure disorder compared to his exclusion of such a possibility in Shelby’s case.
Benton said in Shelby, there was no diagnosis in the medical records of Bryan having a seizure disorder and dismissed such a possibility. In Mixon, however, he said there was no way to determine if a seizure had occurred unless an EEG is performed at the hospital.
“He testified in favor of a diagnosis of seizures, unless there was an EEG to rule them out” in the Alabama case, the filing stated.
The Mississippi Supreme Court will decide whether to grant Shelby’s attorneys to file the motion for post-conviction relief in Harrison County, where the original trial was held.