What does a United States prison inmate do when new evidence comes to light proving their innocence? They wait. Sadly the wait is most often excruciatingly long, sometimes decades. The appeals system in the US operates at an incredibly slow pace, making it difficult to correct a wrongful conviction no matter how strong the case for innocence may be.
Jeff Havard is a perfect example of an inmate who sits waiting to be heard. Overwhelming evidence has come forward showing that Jeff currently sits on death row in Mississippi for a crime that never happened. After nearly 13 years, the Mississippi Supreme Court finally granted Jeff permission in April of this year to request an evidentiary hearing based on new evidence. This is certainly good news for Jeff, but he continues to wait.
The process to request an evidentiary hearing is not a speedy one. The defense files their request to the court, and then the State has time to file their response to the request. Of course the State is in no hurry to admit any fault and their actions have shown that they would like to drag out the process as long as possible. In this case, the State filed their response on the last possible day just last week, making sure to send it via snail mail to tack on a couple more days.
Thankfully for Jeff and others who continue to fight for their freedom, wrongful convictions are highlighted regularly in the news these days, and more attention is now being given to the problem. This is good news but much more needs to be done. Time and time again, exonerees can be seen speaking calmly to the media after losing decades of their lives. Somehow many exonerees seem to make peace with what has been done to them. It just might be the only way to survive such an ordeal.
Vindication should be celebrated whenever it is achieved, but eventual freedom does not eliminate the tragedy that occurred. It is impossible to give back so many lost years, and families of both the victim and the accused are forever affected as well. And of course, in cases where a crime has actually been committed, the real perpetrator is left free to possibly commit another crime. There is no doubt that wrongful convictions cause irreparable damage. We must do more to expedite cases of obvious wrongful conviction through our court system, so that we can at least work to lessen the damage caused. We also need to study the causes of wrongful convictions so we can work to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Our criminal justice system is in dire need of reform on all levels.
Jeff Havard’s case is a sad one that began with a horrible accident that caused the death of an infant. The tragedy was compounded when authorities mistook the accident for a crime. An improper investigation and a rush to judgment led authorities to charge Jeff with the sexual assault and murder of his girlfriend’s six-month-old daughter, Chloe Britt. The charges were horrific, making it easy for the prosecution to paint Jeff as a monster.
Jeff’s supporters will tell you the infant slipped from Jeff’s arms while lifting her from the tub, causing her head to hit the toilet, just as Jeff described, and they have facts to support their claims. Multiple experts have now reviewed this case and their findings support Jeff’s claim that the infant’s death was an accident. In fact, there are now five experts that refute the prosecution’s case, and the State’s only expert to testify at trial has gone on record declaring that the State’s theory is wrong. There are currently no experts who support the State’s theory of the accused crime.
A typical night turned tragic
On the evening of February 21, 2002, Jeffrey Havard’s live-in girlfriend Rebecca Britt went to a store to buy groceries, leaving her six-month-old infant in Jeff’s care. According to Jeff, Chloe spit up on her clothing and bedding. He gave her a bath, and he accidentally dropped her. Her head struck the toilet. Chloe did not seem to be seriously injured, so Jeff changed her into clean clothes and put her to bed.
Rebecca returned home from the store because she needed money to go rent videos. She checked on Chloe at that time and all appeared to be well. When she returned from the video store, however, she discovered that Chloe did not appear to be breathing. She and Jeff took the baby to a hospital emergency room, where she died after attempts to resuscitate her failed.
There is no question that Jeff exercised bad judgment that night. He should have explained what had happened right away. But he did not want to admit he had dropped the baby, so he said nothing. It was a big mistake. Medical personnel did not know what had triggered the emergency, and they misunderstood what they saw. Serious brain damage often causes a patient’s sphincter muscle to relax, so the anus becomes dilated. That was what happened to Chloe. The doctors and nurses treating the baby thought it meant she had been anally raped.
By the time Jeff was tried, in December 2002, witnesses who had seen the baby at the hospital were recalling injuries that are not shown in photos or recorded in the autopsy report. Defense attorneys did little to challenge these witnesses or explain the medical evidence, which they did not understand themselves.
The actual cause of death was never determined in court. The prosecution suggested Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) was the cause. The prosecution did not have the burden of proving cause of death. All they needed to do was suggest that the baby died in the process of a sexual assault. Flawed testimony from misinformed witnesses was all that was needed to secure victory for the State. Jeff was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in a trial that lasted less than two days.
The jury may have reached the only decision they could, because the trial did not clarify the facts of the medical report or what these facts really mean. Multiple experts have examined the medical report after the trial, and all have concluded that Chloe’s death was accidental. Her autopsy revealed none of the injuries that would surely be present had she been sexually assaulted. Even the prosecution’s medical expert, Dr. Steven Hayne, has repeatedly stated that the evidence does not support a claim of sexual assault.
Hayne clarified in a 2014 affidavit that he specifically told prosecutors on more than one occasion prior to trial that he could not support a finding a sexual abuse. This information was withheld from the defense, which is a Brady violation.
Most shockingly, the defense learned in January of 2014, 12 years after the conviction, that Hayne had looked at tissue sections under a microscope and found definitively that there was no evidence of sexual assault. In a case where suspicion of sexual assault only arose when ER doctors and nurses noticed what they believed to be physical evidence of sexual abuse. Hayne’s microscopic findings were clearly exculpatory, and would have positively shown that the doctors and nurses had simply misinterpreted what they saw. The state withheld this evidence from the defense as well and failed to tell the doctors and nurses about it before they testified. Unbelievably, the State chose to ignore Hayne’s findings and prosecute Jeff for murder during the course of a sexual assault.
Cause of Death
The prosecution’s suggestion that SBS was the cause of death has been heavily refuted as well. The prosecution’s expert, Dr. Steven Hayne, testified that the cause of death of Chloe Britt was consistent with SBS. Hayne has now changed his mind based on new scientific evidence. Hayne was the only expert to testify at trial.
Jeff has always maintained that the infant slipped from his arms while lifting her from the tub, causing her head to hit the toilet. New expert evidence supports Jeff’s claims.
New scientific evidence has come to light in recent years challenging the validity of SBS, calling into question thousands of convictions that may have been secured on flawed science. The Audrey Edmunds case in Wisconsin highlighted how errors can occur when diagnosing SBS. Audrey Edmunds was wrongfully convicted in 1996 of reckless homicide for the shaking death of Natalie Beard, a 7-month-old infant she was watching while doing home daycare. Audrey was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
In 2006 the Wisconsin Innocence Project, took on Audrey’s case. New scientific evidence was emerging that was not available at the time of Audrey’s trial that supported her innocence. In January of 2008, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that “a shift in mainstream medical opinion” had cast doubt on whether shaking could have caused the brain injury that caused Natalie Beard’s death, leading the court to order a new trial. The District Attorney’s office dropped the case, freeing Audrey after serving 11 years in prison for a crime she did not commit.
Expert evidence in Jeff’s case shows that the injuries to Chloe Britt suggest a short fall, not SBS. Multiple experts have reviewed the case and have provided affidavits for the defense. Dr. Michael Baden, a world renowned physician and board-certified forensic pathologist, disagrees with the finding of SBS. Baden stated: “There is no autopsy or scientific evidence to support a diagnosis that Chloe died of shaken baby syndrome.”
Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist with over 30 years of experience, stated in her affidavit that there was no evidence to support a finding of shaking in Jeff’s case. She concluded that the evidence suggested an impact.
Forensic Pathologist Dr. George Nichols, who has over twenty years of experience as Kentucky’s Chief Medical Examiner, as well as being an instructor of pathology at the University of Louisville Medical School the past twenty-three years, concluded that Chloe Britt’s death is entirely consistent with a short fall, and not an abusive shaking.
It is now crystal clear that Jeff Havard sits on death row in Mississippi for a crime that never happened. To sum things up, five experts have reviewed the case who confirm that a sexual assault never took place and that the evidence shows the cause of death was a short fall. The State’s only expert is also on record declaring that a sexual assault never took place and that he no longer believes that SBS was the cause of death. There are currently no experts who support the prosecution’s claims. Most shockingly, it is now proven that the prosecution knew before trial that a sexual assault never took place, yet they pushed forward to convict anyway.
Jeff Havard has waited far too long. Jeff must be granted a new trial so that he can be given a real chance to prove his innocence. The truth is that the State no longer has any case at all against Jeff, and that is why they are pushing so hard to avoid a new trial. This very point should be extremely disturbing to everyone who reads it.
Jeff is one of many currently sitting in a cage as an innocent person. American citizens need to stand up and demand action for current cases of wrongful conviction, and we also need to stress the need for criminal justice reform. Our elected officials need to know that this is an important issue that requires immediate attention. Criminal justice reform should be made a strong campaign issue for the 2016 presidential election.