The case of a woman convicted over 20 years ago for the death of her former-fiance’s son could be reexamined through a conviction integrity unit proposed by Democratic Attorney General candidate Great Kemp Martin.
Tasha Shelby has been serving a life sentence without parole at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility since her 2000 capital murder conviction for the death of her stepson, Bryan Thompson IV.
Shelby’s attorney, family members and supporters believe she is innocent because of the toddler’s family history of seizures and evolving science behind “Shaken Baby Syndrome.”
They see a conviction integrity unit as one of the last options they could use to free Shelby.
“We’ve been fighting for Tasha for 26 years,” said Shelby’s aunt Penny Warner at a Tuesday press conference with Kemp Martin.
Last week a panel of the state Supreme Court denied her request for a new trial. That leaves Shelby with few options such as asking the attorney general to dismiss her charge or requesting a pardon from the governor’s office, which the supporters have done.
Kemp Martin, who met and talked with Shelby last week, said her proposed conviction integrity unit could help her and others across the state. She said the unit would look at cases of innocence, wrongful conviction, prosecutorial misconduct and evidence.
“Her fate is sealed unless someone steps in to intervene,” Kemp Martin said.
Warner planned to visit Shelby after the press conference and tell her about the recent development in her case. The Tennessee native is the relative who lives closest to Shelby, and Warner said she makes the drive down to the Jackson area every few months.
Warner sees Shelby as one of her daughters and she’s waiting for the call that says she can come home. Her niece would live with her, and Warner has already prepared an outfit for her niece to wear when she gets out of prison.
“I cannot do what she has done,” Warner said about her niece being incarcerated for over 20 years. “She has remained so positive. She has a very strong faith and we all pray for her all the time. I kept thinking she’d be home by now.”
A seizure or shaken baby syndrome?
On the early morning of May 30, 1997, 22-year-old Shelby heard a thump and found 2½-year-old Bryan on the floor struggling to breath and having what appeared to be a seizure. She called the toddler’s father who was at work and they rushed the toddler to the hospital.
Prosecutors believed Shelby was responsible for the toddler’s brain injuries. An expert witness for the state who conducted the autopsy testified Bryan’s injuries showed someone intentionally shook him and banged his head against something – injuries consistent with “shaken baby syndrome.”
Yet in a similar later case in Alabama where state expert Dr. Scott Benton was a paid expert for the defense, he offered conflicting testimony.
West Virginia Innocence Project Director Valena Beety took on Shelby’s case in 2011 while working at the Mississippi Innocence Project. In interviews and court filings, Beety has argued that Shelby is innocent, and experts have cited advances in medical science that have undermined shaken baby syndrome – now referred to as abusive head trauma.
Legal attempts to revisit Shelby’s conviction
LeRoy Riddick, the medical examiner who ruled Bryan’s death a homicide, reexamined medical records and concluded a family history of seizures may have contributed to the toddler’s death and injuries that are consistent with shaken baby syndrome, so he changed the manner of death from homicide to an accident, Mississippi Today reported in its investigation “Shaky Science, Fractured Families.”
From Riddick’s updated opinion and evolving science about shaken baby syndrome, Shelby asked for a new trial. The state called child abuse pediatrician Benton to testify at Shelby’s 2018 Post-Conviction Relief hearing. He maintained that Bryan died from blunt force trauma with shaking.
The next year, a Harrison County Circuit Court judge upheld Shelby’s conviction, saying that shaken baby syndrome hasn’t been “debunked.”
Shelby tried the federal court by filing a habeas petition with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in 2021, but earlier this year that petition was dismissed because it was time-barred.
Beety, Shelby’s attorney, filed another petition for post-conviction relief in March based on contradictory testimony by Benton, which was first reported in Mississippi Today’s “Shaky Science, Fractured Families” series.
She argued in the court records that the testimony Benton gave as an expert in 2022 for a man accused of child abuse in Alabama would have supported relief for Shelby at her 2018 post-conviction relief hearing.
The motion for post-conviction relief also cited new evidence: one of the jurors in Shelby’s case was the toddler’s great-uncle by marriage and had heard about the child’s death before trial, according to court records.
A panel of the state Supreme Court dismissed Shelby’s request for a new trial but allowed the George Cochran Innocence Project at Ole Miss to file an amicus brief to support her. Beety, Shelby’s attorney, said the order did not make sense, so she has filed a motion for clarification this week.
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