WV Civil Rights Lawyer

Police Misconduct, Civil Rights Law

Kanawha County Mother Charged in 1-Year-Old’s Death – Police Should Tread Carefully

A story in the Charleston Daily Mail today reported that a Kanawha County mother was charged criminally with the death of her 22 month-old son.

Elizabeth Dawn Thornton, 21, was arraigned in Kanawha Magistrate Court in connection with the death of Constantine Alexander Washburn, known as Alex.

Lt. Sean Crosier, of the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Department, said the infant died May 31 as a result of injuries received May 26 in his Cross Lanes home. Crosier said the boy’s severe brain injuries and other injuries would have required immediate medical attention, but that Thornton did not seek help until a friend called an ambulance on May 29.

Crosier said authorities waited several days before charging Thornton. “This is a very, very serious allegation and we wanted to make sure everything was right,” he said. He said authorities are still questioning other family members, including the boy’s father, 31-year-old Christopher Washburn.

Police believe the elder Washburn may have been present when the boy was injured. Crosier did not know if other charges are pending.

According to the criminal complaint, both parents told police Alex Washburn bumped his head on a table and hit his chin on a toilet. But doctors said the boy’s severe brain injuries and bruising on his neck did not support their stories.

As a criminal defense attorney, this is the most upsetting type of case, because babies are innocent 100% of the time and have been robbed of their life. Secondly, there are many types of accidental situations that could be construed to be child abuse or neglect, resulting in essentially murder charges against parents who have suffered a great tragedy.

In these types of cases, there is a very fine line between parents who deserve to rot in prison, and parents who are either innocent, or unintentionally harmed their child. What separates the two? The medical examiner who performed the autopsy. The ME will come up with some reason why the injuries do not corroborate the parent(s) version of what happened. Therein lies the problem: what happens when two doctors disagree on the autopsy results and their necessary conclusions? You have a situation where two doctors testify against each other for opposing parties in a court room. But this is not a civil case, this is a criminal case, with everything at stake, not just money.

Case in point: I had a similar case where a 6-month-old child died tragically. The autopsy was performed and it was ruled SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) by the ME. Law enforcement thought something was fishy, and they didn’t like the ME’s conclusion, so the ME was fired, and a new ME was brought in to take a second look. Guess what? The second ME ruled the death a homicide, based on the conclusion that blood in some cavity of the body meant it must have been murder, or that someone was lying. So the investigators leak the story to the newspapers and start interrogating the parents.

So what happened? After being devastated by the death of their infant, the parents were already at the end of their rope. Within months, both parents committed suicide. Tragically, an entire family disappeared from the world.

The point is, that investigators better make damn sure they know what they are talking about, and the parents better run – not walk – to an independent physician to review the ME’s findings.

Read the full article here.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney.

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June 6, 2008 - Posted by | Children, Medical Examiners, Murder, Negligent Homicide

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