On September 21, 2008, four-month-old Matthew Thomas’s parents found him limp and unresponsive in his bed in Troy, New York. Matthew’s mother, Wilhelmina Hicks, accompanied emergency personnel who took him to Samaritan Hospital in Troy. Matthew’s father, 26-year-old Adrian Thomas, remained home with the couple’s six other children.
An initial diagnosis of septic shock was made, although head injuries were not ruled out. Matthew was treated with antibiotics and then transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York. The treating physician in Albany believed there was a cranial fracture and concluded that the baby was a victim of blunt force trauma.
Police went to Thomas’s home and removed the other children to child protective services. Thomas was taken to the police station for questioning. After about 2 hours, Thomas expressed suicidal thoughts and was taken to a hospital. He was returned to the police station 15 hours later, on September 22, and police resumed questioning him.
By the time the second portion of the interrogation began, Matthew had died. The detectives, however, told Thomas that Matthew was alive and that the only way to save Matthew’s life was for him to tell them what he had done to Matthew. When Thomas said he had accidentally dropped Matthew five or six inches into his crib about 10 to 15 days earlier, a detective entered the interrogation room and said that based on his experience with head injuries in the military in Operation Desert Storm, he knew that Thomas was lying. The detective said that the child’s head injuries were consistent with the type of injuries suffered in a high speed auto collision.
After that detective left, other detectives suggested to Thomas that perhaps he had been depressed, emotionally overwhelmed, upset after his wife berated him for chronic unemployment and acted out of frustration and hurled the child to the mattress. Eventually, Thomas was persuaded to re-enact what he did, using a clipboard to stand in for the baby.
Thomas was charged with murder on September 22, based on his statement during the seven hour interrogation that he slammed Matthew down on a mattress on three occasions, including the day before Matthew died. Almost immediately after he was charged, Thomas recanted to his defense attorney saying he did not harm Matthew.
Prior to trial, Thomas’s attorney filed a motion to suppress the confession on the ground that it was coerced. The trial judge denied the motion and Thomas went to trial in Rensselaer County Supreme Court in October 2009.
The medical examiner who performed Matthew’s autopsy, an expert on child abuse, and the treating physicians at Albany Medical Center testified for the prosecution. They cited radiologic and post-mortem findings of subdural fluid collections, brain swelling and retinal hemorrhaging as the cause of Matthew’s death. According to their testimony, the initial finding of a cranial fracture was incorrect—there was no fracture. The prosecution played portions of Thomas’s videotaped interrogation, during which Thomas, who weighed more than 300 pounds, demonstrated how he raised Matthew above his head and forcefully threw him down onto a low mattress.
A pathologist and an infectious disease physician testified for the defense that based on their examination of the medical records, Matthew, who was born prematurely, had died of sepsis—a bacterial infection that invades the entire body.
On October 22, 2009, a jury convicted Thomas of murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
In March 2012, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court rejected defense claims that the confession was coerced and upheld Thomas’s conviction.
Also in March, 2012, filmmakers Blue Hadeagh and Grover Babcock released a documentary film that critically examined the interrogation of Thomas and went on to win numerous awards. (A trailer for the film, “Scenes of a Crime,” can be viewed here: http://scenesofacrime.com/
In February 2014, the New York Court of Appeals vacated Thomas’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The Court of Appeals ruled that the interrogation was “highly coercive” and that Thomas’s statements were involuntary.
The Court of Appeals pointed to portions of the interrogation where detectives told Thomas that Matthew’s injuries were so severe that they could only have been inflicted by an adult and that if he had not harmed the child, his wife must have done it. The detectives threatened to arrest Hicks, Thomas’s wife, if he did not admit to harming Matthew.
“By the end of the initial two-hour interrogation, (Thomas) agreed to ‘take the fall’ for his wife,” the Court noted. Thomas denied harming Matthew and did not believe his wife had done so either, but said he would take responsibility to protect her.
The appeals court noted that detectives told Thomas more than 20 times that “his disclosure of the circumstances under which he injured his child was essential to assist the doctors attempting to save the child’s life.” The court said, “These falsehoods were coercive…”
The court also criticized the detectives’ repeated promises that “whatever had happened was an accident, that he could be helped if he disclosed it all, and that, once he had done so, he would not be arrested, but would be permitted to return home.”
“It is plain that (Thomas) was cajoled” into the re-enactment, the Court of Appeals held. The Court found that if there had been only a few deceptive reassurances, there would be a question of whether the confession was coerced. But, the Court noted, in fact Thomas was told 67 times that what had been done to the baby was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested and eight times that he would be going home.
Thomas went to trial a second time in May 2014. Without the confession or the testimony of the detectives who interrogated Thomas, the prosecution relied primarily upon the testimony of the physicians who said the baby had suffered blunt force trauma.
The defense presented the pathologist and infectious disease physician who had testified in the first trial and, for the first time, the testimony of Patrick Barnes, a Stanford University physician who has testified extensively about brain trauma in children. Barnes examined the radiologic reports and concluded that the trauma that prosecution physicians diagnosed as recent based on brain bleeding was in fact not recent and was consistent with a diagnosis of sepsis.
On June 12, 2014, the jury acquitted Thomas and he was released.
– Maurice Possley