Monday, April 28, 2003

Marybeth Davis' bid for new trial fails


LEWISBURG - Greenbrier County Circuit Judge Frank Jolliffe has denied a request for a new trial for Marybeth Davis, the woman convicted in 1997 of the caffeine poisoning of her 3-year-old daughter Tegan and the attempted poisoning of her infant son Seth.

Since 1999, Lewisburg attorney Paul Detch has been pressing for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. Detch argued the prosecution failed to provide evidence in its possession that would have helped the defense, that key prosecution witnesses provided false testimony and that one of them recanted part of her testimony.

He claimed new medical tests proved Seth suffered from a genetic disease and was not poisoned. He claimed the conviction was based on speculation, not facts, and that the actual caffeine level in Tegan's body at the time of death was the equivalent of 11/2 cups of coffee - nowhere near a lethal dose.

But Jolliffe ruled Thursday that Detch's arguments did not rise to the standard of proof required for a new trial. In a 22-page order, he said Detch's medical information did not qualify under court rules as newly discovered evidence, that much of it was a repeat of information presented at trial, that Detch did not try hard enough to obtain it prior to trial, that Detch had failed to demonstrate the information would lead to a different verdict if a new trial were granted and that Detch had failed to prove false testimony and recantation.

"I think the judge made the right decision," Greenbrier County Prosecutor Kevin Hanson said. "Davis was found guilty at trial and this proves she doesn't need a new trial."

But Detch claimed the judge's ruling is fraught with errors and pledged to appeal it to the state Supreme Court. "Obviously, he didn't pay any attention to what the facts are," he said. "The order makes the appeal easy."

Detch said he is convinced Davis is innocent and that the 1997 verdict was a miscarriage of justice. The new medical information disproves the prosecution's case, a fact not reflected in Jolliffe's ruling. "There is no explanation of how this woman could possibly be guilty," he said.

Detch likened the case to the 1897 murder trial of Edward Shue, in which a Greenbrier judge allowed the victim's mother to testify her daughter's ghost had appeared to her in a dream and told her the girl had been murdered.

"In one case they let a ghost testify and now they put a woman in jail for the equivalent of a cup and a half of coffee," he said. "Greenbrier County is going to be remembered for these two cases. That's the legacy Frank Jolliffe is leaving."

Tegan died in 1982, but Davis was not charged until 1996 after the State Police Cold Case Unit reopened the case.

Prosecutors claimed Davis, a registered nurse, fed her daughter diet pills, causing a caffeine overdose. They claimed she injected her son with insulin, causing severe brain damage that left him in a vegetative state for 21 years. He died last October.

Prosecutors theorized Davis, now 49, suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychiatric disorder in which a mother harms her children to attract attention to herself.

Davis is serving a life sentence at Pruntytown Correctional Center without chance of parole.

Detch claims both children had genetically linked metabolic diseases that were misdiagnosed. He claims Tegan suffered from a form of Reyes syndrome and Seth suffered from human growth hormone deficiency.

Detch first requested the new trial in 1999 after his appeal to the state Supreme Court was turned down. Since then, the case has gone through numerous twists and turns, including the April 2002 exhumation of Tegan's body. The results were inconclusive.

The case has attracted nationwide attention and has been used by some legal advocacy groups as an example of justice gone awry. Two years ago, a Citizens to Free Marybeth Davis group was formed. Members petitioned Gov. Bob Wise for clemency.

A documentary about the case was featured on "Cold Case Files" on the Arts & Entertainment channel.

Jolliffe presided over the 1997 trial. The last hearing on the new trial petition was held in October 2002. Since then, both sides have been waiting for a ruling.

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