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LeeVester Brown

Other exonerations with shaken baby syndrome
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On March 28, 2003, 33-year-old LeeVester Brown called his wife, Shirley Myles, because their six-month-old baby, Le’Anthony, began choking while drinking a bottle of formula. Myles, who was at work five minutes away, rushed to their home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The couple took the baby to a local hospital and within hours, the child was put in a helicopter to be transferred to a hospital in Jackson.

Minutes after take-off, the child died.

Two days later, police arrested Brown on a charge of capital murder after Dr. Steven Hayne conducted an autopsy and concluded that the baby had died as a result of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

SBS was a term coined to describe a condition first articulated in 1971. SBS is said to arise when an infant is shaken so hard that the brain rotates inside the skull, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury, but often without any external signs of harm. SBS is said to involve a tell-tale “triad” of symptoms—brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging, and retinal hemorrhaging. When present in an infant who has no outward signs of abuse, the triad of symptoms is interpreted by many physicians, child abuse investigators and police to indicate that the child has been violently shaken. Because Le’Anthony began choking while in Brown’s care, Brown was believed to have caused the baby’s death.

With help from family and friends, Brown was able to make his $75,000 bail—posting the required 10 percent—and was released within a week of his arrest.

He was indicted for capital murder on December 2, 2003.

Prior to trial, Brown’s privately retained defense attorney asked the court to approve funding for an expert pathologist to review Dr. Hayne’s autopsy findings. The cost of an expert was estimated to be $6,500. The lawyer noted that Brown’s family and friends had exhausted their financial resources after posting Brown’s bond and retaining the defense lawyer. The prosecution objected, calling the request a “fishing expedition.” The prosecution said a pathology expert was not necessary to the defense and noted that Brown had “made his own choice as to where to pay his monies.” The judge refused to authorize the funds, saying that there was “no authority to allow funds for expert assistance to a defendant with retained counsel who has not been found to be indigent.”

Brown went to trial in August 2006 in Coahoma County Circuit Court. Evidence showed that Le’Anthony was born six weeks premature because Myles’s blood pressure got so high that labor was induced. The baby had anemia and jaundice, and he spent time in an incubator before being released.

At that time, the couple took Le’Anthony to a pediatrician, Dr. Peggy Jo Wells, and continued seeing Dr. Wells for vaccinations and wellness checks. Brown took part in caring for the baby. Myles worked the day shift at a health center and Brown worked the night shift at a casino, earning $7.25 an hour as a “houseperson.” When he came home, Myles went to work. She typically came home for lunch since she was just five minutes away. Brown changed diapers, applied lotion and powder, prepared formula, and fed and bathed Le’Anthony.

Myles testified that Brown purchased “quite a bit” of things for the baby—clothes, blankets, and things the baby didn’t need. She said he was “very happy” to have a son and never complained about taking care of the baby. She told the jury that the baby never had diaper rash and she saw no evidence of abuse. She said that Brown often accompanied her on doctor visits and went into the examining room with her.

Myles said Brown was a good man and good provider. He did not get drunk and was not abusive. At the time, Shirley had two children from a prior marriage, 18-year old Jureau and 17-year-old Lester, both of whom also lived with them and helped with babysitting.

Myles testified that in December 2002, her son Lester was taking care of Le’Anthony. Lester fell asleep on a bed with the baby next to him in a car seat. Myles said that when she and Jureau came home from shopping, they found the baby on the floor. They concluded the baby was fine, and rejected Brown’s urging to take the baby to the emergency room.

On March 26, 2003, Myles took the baby to Dr. Wells for a Synagis vaccination for protection against SRV, a respiratory virus that is of particular danger to high-risk children.

On March 28, 2003, Myles went to work about 7:45 a.m., after Jureau and Lester went to school. The baby was asleep and problem-free, she said. By the time Brown arrived home from work about 7:30 a.m., Le’Anthony was already up and had a bottle. Myles said she came home for lunch that day a little after noon. The baby was asleep. She woke him, fed him, bathed him, and dressed him before going back to work after 1 p.m.

She recalled that Brown told her she should not “spoil” the baby by picking him up every time he cried. She said she disagreed with Brown, but did not respond to him that day. Myles said that before she went back to work, she gave the baby a bottle with milk and cereal. When she left, Le’Anthony was on the couch in his car seat. He was not crying.

Fifteen minutes after she left, Brown called and said she needed to come home—that they needed to take Le’Anthony to the emergency room. Myles said he told her that the baby had choked on his bottle and was having trouble breathing. She said that when she got home, Brown came outside holding the baby. Le’Anthony was conscious, but barely breathing—gasping for breath, Myles said.

Myles drove to the hospital in Clarksdale and Brown held the baby. They gave the baby to a nurse in the emergency room. While Myles handled the admission paperwork, Brown followed the nurse as far as he was allowed. He told the medical personnel the same thing he had told Myles.

Over the next several hours, in the emergency room, Myles and Brown saw the baby intubated. They later saw the baby kicking while the doctors and nurses did their work; but when they next saw the baby in the intensive care unit (ICU), the baby was conscious, but “breathless,” and they saw blood in the intubation tubes, Myles said. She said they returned to the waiting room until Dr. Wells came out and asked for their consent for a blood transfusion. They both agreed and Brown offered to donate blood. Brown also asked if the child had been injured as a result of the medical treatment. Dr. Wells said the baby needed to be transferred to University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

While Le’Anthony was taken by helicopter, Myles, Brown, and Jureau drove to Jackson. When they arrived, a physician told them the baby had died en route. Myles and Brown both spent time holding the body before leaving, arriving home at 2 a.m.

Dr. Wells testified when she arrived at the emergency room around 2:00 p.m., Le’Anthony was ventilated, alert and crying, with some fighting and kicking. She said that when the breathing tubes were removed, Le'Anthony stopped breathing, so he was reintubated. The child also was being manually given oxygen.

When the baby started arching his back and extending his legs and his pulse shot up to 200 with blood pressure of 75 over 37, she realized that his heart was not pumping blood and getting oxygen into the blood. As a result, there was inadequate blood flow to his extremities. Dr. Wells said Le‘Anthony's chest sounds were “raspy.” When they tried stopping the manual administration of oxygen, his respiration became very labored and he would stop breathing. She said she did not see any bruises, abrasions, or anything external that looked abnormal. She also saw no signs of abuse.

Between 4 and 5 p.m., Dr. Wells said she noticed that the right side of Le’Anthony’s face was not moving, suggesting nerve dysfunction. She said that although she did not see retinal hemorrhaging, a radiologist reported that the results of a CT scan of the baby’s head was “abnormal.” At that point, the baby was taken to the ICU to await the transfer. She said they could not get the baby stabilized on a ventilator. His breathing sounds eventually stopped and blood started showing up in the endotracheal and gastric tubing. Dr. Wells had no explanation for the bleeding. She said the helicopter arrived around 7 p.m. and was airborne before 7:30 p.m.

Dr. Wells testified that Le’Anthony was unresponsive for the last hour and a half. Asked about the vaccination she had administered two days earlier. Dr. Wells said the side effects were rare, but included vomiting and asthma symptoms. She said that Brown often accompanied Myles when the baby was brought in for wellness visits and that she never saw any signs of abuse.

Jureau testified that Brown mistreated Myles and yelled at the baby, spanking him for crying. Jureau said Brown helped out, but not as much as she thought he should have. Jureau also said she disagreed with Brown’s belief that the baby should not be picked up every time he cried.

William Bailey, a helicopter nurse on Le’Anthony’s flight to Jackson, testified that the baby went into cardiac arrest approximately one minute after they lifted off. He said the crew gave Le’Anthony some cardiac drugs, without response. He said they continued their efforts for approximately 30 minutes and radioed a physician in the pediatric emergency room at the hospital in Jackson. Informed of the situation, the physician told them to halt their efforts. Le’Anthony had no vital signs, Bailey said.

Bailey said he saw a “pink frothy fluid” mixed with blood filling up Le’Anthony’s endotracheal tube. During cross-examination, Bailey said it was possible for people to be injured when they are being intubated, and that he had seen that before. He said that the bleeding could come from multiple places, such as when a patient is not circulating the blood properly, and it mixes with the “frothy sputum” and comes back up through the trachea. Bailey said he had seen this sort of bleeding a number of times.

Bailey also testified when they initially checked Le’Anthony, there were no breathing sounds, which “could in turn mean that the [endotracheal] tube was improperly placed.” He said they pulled the tube out and put another one in, and then they heard breathing sounds.

Clarksdale Police Detective Billy Baker said he questioned Brown on March 30, 2003, two days after the baby died. Baker said Brown told him that after Myles went back to work, he walked Le’Anthony around for a bit until he stopped crying. Then he put the baby in his car seat on the couch, propped up a bottle for him, and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Brown said he heard Le’Anthony cough and when he checked on him, he saw milk coming from his mouth and nose. Brown said he picked up the baby, but he was not moving or responding, so he called Myles and they took him to the hospital.

Baker said Brown told him he believed the hospital personnel must have done something with the tube to make him hemorrhage. Brown said that he asked the doctors if the tube could have punctured Le’Anthony’s lung and was told that could not have happened. Brown also said that Dr. Wells said they were trying to unclog milk from the baby’s lungs.

By that time, Baker had spoken to Dr. Hayne and had a copy of Hayne’s provisional autopsy report. Based on Hayne’s report, Brown was arrested.

Dr. Hayne testified that he performed the autopsy at the request of Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith. During the external examination, Dr. Hayne noticed evidence of “medical intervention” – that the medical personnel had attempted to place intravenous lines and to draw blood from Le’Anthony. He also noticed small bruises located on the inner rings of the eyes. There was no evidence of trauma otherwise. He said this indicated that there was no significant external trauma, “such as striking a child with an object or throwing a child against a hard surface.”

Dr. Hayne said his internal examination showed extensive bleeding in the brain and a hemorrhage about the optic nerves. Dr. Hayne testified that in a “pure Shaken Baby Syndrome, a clinical physician can conduct an ophthalmological examination, examination of an eye, with a special instrument that most physicians have and produce a light flow into the eye, and one can grossly see the areas of hemorrhage on the retina, the inner structure of the eye itself.”

Dr. Hayne discounted the possibility that medical intervention was responsible for Le’Anthony’s death. He said he thought the retinal hemorrhage was “a direct result of the shaking of the child.” Asked by the prosecutor if he had been able to determine the cause of death, Dr. Hayne said, “I called it consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome.”

“And will you tell us what that is?” the prosecutor asked.

“That is a vigorous shaking of a child, producing oscillation of the brain inside the skull, and it tears the small blood vessels that go from the inside of the skull to the brain, and they start bleeding,” Dr. Hayne said. “There’s a collection of blood. Cerebral edema develops. Eventually death will ensue.”

“This takes a vigorous shaking of the baby,” he said. “You see a similar type injury in restrained children in motor vehicle crashes, a similar type of force being applied to the head.”

Dr. Hayne testified that Dr. Wells’s observation of Le’Anthony's face not moving indicated that a severe injury already had occurred, and that some of the nerve structures no longer were functioning normally. He said the injuries he observed were inconsistent with a child having fallen off a bed.

Brown testified similarly to his statement to police—that he laid Le'Anthony down in the car seat on the couch with his bottle, went to the kitchen, and heard the baby coughing. When he came back, Le’Anthony had milk coming from his mouth and nose and was “barely breathing.”

He insisted he had not harmed the baby and that he had no idea what happened. He said he was not easily upset, did not yell, and was never violent or abusive towards Myles or the baby.

On August 11, 2006, the jury convicted Brown of capital murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Brown’s appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court was delayed for more than seven years due to a combination of his trial defense lawyer failing to file an appeal and the death of the trial court reporter. Ultimately, Brown was allowed to file an appeal. The opening appeals brief was filed in February 2014.

The defense asked the court to declare SBS legally and medically invalid. “Current medical science has now generally rejected the former thought that the only cause of so-called SBS symptoms, occurring without any other trauma, is homicide,” the defense said.

The brief noted that in 2014, Dr. Hayne was interviewed by a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger newspaper. The article noted that some “biomechanical studies suggest shaking a baby to death would be impossible without also injuring the child’s neck or spine.” The article quoted Dr. Hayne as saying there was “growing evidence” that the diagnosis “is probably not correct.” He told the newspaper that “[s]tudies show shaking isn’t able to generate enough force to cause these kinds of injuries to a child.”

The appeals brief said that based on what Dr. Hayne and others had said, “the theory of SBS that convicted Mr. Brown no longer meets the standards of expert opinion” required by the courts. “That is, SBS is no longer generally accepted nor relevant in deaths similar to Le’Anthony’s,” the defense declared.

The appeals brief also challenged the trial judge’s refusal to allow funding for a pathology expert. The appointment of an expert was “acute” due to the development of evidence showing that “it is considered impossible for a child to be shaken as suggested without suffering other injuries, particularly neck injuries,” the brief said.

On December 11, 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Brown’s conviction on the ground that he should have been granted funds to obtain a pathology expert. The court noted that without an expert, Brown “had absolutely no way to counter the State’s sole evidence of the cause of death, or even to determine the proper questions to ask to challenge Dr. Hayne.”

At the same time, the Supreme Court declined to address the question of whether SBS was invalid, saying that because Brown did not raise a challenge to the validity at the time of trial, the issue was not properly before the court for consideration.

Justice James Kitchens decried the delays in Brown’s case, noting that he had languished in prison while nothing was done for years. “The familiar saying, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ comes to mind; and, in this case, it came to nightmarish fruition. Brown’s appeal had merit. The trial against him was not entirely fair. Now he has been incarcerated for more than eight years for a conviction that this Court unanimously decrees cannot stand. Such rank unfairness speaks for itself.”

Kitchens noted that “all of us who bear responsibility for the reliable and timely functioning of our state’s criminal justice system should be ashamed of the systemic failure which occurred in the case of LeeVester Brown, so much so that we rededicate ourselves to a resolute determination that such a thing will never happen again.”

On April 30, 2015, Brown was released on bond pending a retrial. On January 26, 2018, the prosecution dismissed the case.

Conclusions by Hayne were also involved in the convictions of four other Mississippi defendants who were ultimately exonerated: Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, Eddie Lee Howard Jr. and Tyler Edmonds.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/26/2021
Last Updated: 7/26/2021
State:Mississippi
County:Coahoma
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2003
Convicted:2006
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No