Patricia Stallings' infant child Ryan began to get sick on July 7, 1989 in Jefferson County, Missouri. She took him to the hospital for treatment and tests showed high levels of ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze, in his blood. The pediatrician who treated Ryan believed that he might have been poisoned by Patricia and the child was placed in protective custody. After a brief visit with his mother on September 1, 1989 Ryan was hospitalized again and authorities concluded that she poisoned him during the visit. He died on September 4, 1989. Stallings was arrested the next day.
The main evidence against Stallings came from the lab tests that found ethylene glycol in Ryan’s blood, and evidence of crystalline structures in his brain that also indicated the presence of that compound. Anti-freeze was also discovered in the basement of the Stallings home. When she was arrested Stallings was pregnant with another child. Named David Jr., the baby was born in February 1990 and immediately placed in foster care. Soon thereafter, however, this child displayed the same symptoms Ryan had, even though he had no contract with Patricia. David Jr. was diagnosed by a different hospital with Methylamalonic Acidemia (MMA), a rare genetic disorder that could have caused Ryan’s symptoms. New tests were conducted on tissue samples from Ryan. Results were the same as before except that one lab reported evidence of both poisoning and MMA.
Stallings’ lawyer realized that Ryan may have died from MMA rather than poisoning, but offered no evidence to support that theory. As a result, the judge would not permit him to present this theory to the jury. The lawyer did tell the jury that Ryan could have died of natural causes—to which Jefferson County Prosecutor George B. McElroy III responded, “You might as well speculate that some little man from Mars came down and shot him full of some mysterious bacteria.”
Stallings’ attorney also failed to call any of several character witnesses suggested by Stallings. A Jefferson County Circuit Court jury convicted Stallings of first degree murder and assault on January 31, 1991 and she was sentenced to life in prison.
The following May, the Stallings case was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries,” which William S. Sly, professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at St. Louis University, happened to see. Sly conducted additional tests on Ryan’s blood, confirming that he died of MMA—not poisoning.
When Sly sent test samples containing methylmalonic acid to a group of commercial labs using the procedure used in Ryan’s prosecution, roughly half of the labs produced incorrect results. Sly also showed that other indications of poisoning could have been the result of the treatments given Ryan on the assumption that he had been poisoned.
When McElory was informed of the results, he consulted with Piero Rinaldo, a renowned geneticist from Yale University, who persuaded him that Patricia was innocent.
Based on this new evidence, McElroy asked the trial court to order a new trial because of inadequate legal defense. Stallings was released on July 30, 1991.
On September 20, 1991, McElroy announced that the charges were dismissed and he personally apologized to the Stallings family. The same day, David Jr. was returned to the custody of his parents. With treatment, his long-term prognosis was thought to be good.
In 1993, Stallings settled a lawsuit against the labs and hospital for several million dollars.
— Michael S. Perry