Sunday commentary: Marsha Mills case: Blind trust

By Dick Farrell, The Times-Reporter
Posted 4/19/2009

Note: We suggest that you view the original article on the Times-Reporter's Website. The comment section below the article contains many comments that reader's may find interesting.

When I board an airplane, I am reasonably confident that the guy in the cockpit has had the sufficient amount of training and experience to get me and the rest of us willing passengers safely to our destination.

As someone who doesn’t know how to fly an airplane, I am also assuming that the pilot had a good night’s sleep and hasn’t been drinking alcoholic beverages within the past 18 hours or so.

Call it blind trust.

So it is with the murder case of Marsha Mills, whose fate was determined by a group of lawyers, doctors and judges and into whom we all put a lot of blind trust and faith at one point or another in our lives.

But something doesn’t seem quite right in the case to this lay person.

Here’s what Marsha Mills said happened to 2-year-old Noah Shoup (and I am paraphrasing for brevity’s sake from the document that was filed last week by the 5th District Court of Appeals, turning down her appeal):

Mills was baby-sitting her own grandchildren – an infant and 2-year-old girl – and the Shoup boy and his older brother, Evan, at her home in New Philadelphia. As she was taking the children outside to play, Noah led the way, missed his footing and fell down the back porch steps, hitting his head on cement covered by a small mat.

Seeing the boy in distress, she picked him up and took him inside. He had not lost total consciousness, but was very groggy. She applied cold compresses to his head and called the boy’s father, who in turn called 911. The boy lost consciousness and paramedics, who arrived at the home after a few minutes, administered emergency measures and he was transported to the hospital, but could not be revived.

It was a tragic death, no doubt, and I feel for family members and the trauma they felt and are feeling.

Mills’ explanation of what happened seems like a reasonable occurrence of what could have transpired that warm day in May in 2006. But at least a couple of doctors, led by Dr. Daryl Steiner, Akron Children’s Hospital’s child abuse guru, didn’t believe her.

Ultimately, Mills was charged with murder and in the summer of 2007 was convicted and sentenced to a 15-year term in prison after a jury heard from those doctors and others and viewed a total of 72 autopsy photos that showed the boy’s body after it had been autopsied by a pathologist and mined for organs.

Mills’ friends and relatives took up her cause, raising money to hire a top-notch defense team of attorneys from Columbus, replacing two court-appointed (and state-paid) co-counsels.

The new defense team put together what appeared to this lay person a solid appeal. It questioned the prosecution’s use of those autopsy photos – among other things – and argued they shouldn’t have been admitted.

(Now think about that for a minute. You’re sitting on a jury with the defendant in front of you and, after hearing from a group of doctors from an esteemed children’s hospital, you’re looking at gruesome photos of a little boy that are probably going to be floating around in your head for days – maybe months or years, to come – and it comes time to render a verdict. What a monster. She must have done it. Guilty.)

So, Appeals Judges William Hoffman, John Wise and Julie Edwards addressed the photographs issue in their 61-page opinion.

“Upon review, we find that 53 of the autopsy photographs were introduced to illustrate the coroner’s testimony and provide his perspective on the pattern of injuries which Noah suffered,” the opinion stated on Page 34. “Furthermore, the appellant’s expert, Dr. John Plunkett, used many of the same 53 autopsy photographs to explain his interpretation of the injuries which caused Noah’s death and to bolster his own conclusions that the injuries resulted from an accidental fall...

“The additional 19 photographs, taken during the autopsy appear to be repetitive of the 53 photographs. Furthermore, appellant stipulated to the admission of the 19 photographs...”

In other words, the fact that Mills’ attorneys allowed the photographs to be submitted as evidence undermines any argument that they shouldn’t have been.

If I’m defending this woman during the trial, I argue that gruesome photos of an autopsy are unnecessary – testimony will do – and then stand up and rhetorically ask all the doctors if they want to test – with their own or their loved ones’ toddlers – their theory that a 2-year-old’s fall down stairs and onto cement couldn’t possibly cause death.

An online legal dictionary defines reasonable doubt as the “level of certainty a juror must have to find a defendant guilty of a crime. A real doubt, based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence, or lack of evidence, in a case. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, is proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in the most important of your own affairs. However, it does not mean an absolute certainty.”

If Natasha Richardson, the actress, died from a brain injury after suffering what has been described as a minor fall while skiing, how can anyone be sure that a 2-year-old who hits his relatively soft head on cement can’t either? And Richardson certainly isn’t the only example of someone who can die after a fall. There are plenty. Google “child head injuries” for more.

I just hope the many doctors, lawyers and judges, who ultimately became the deciders of Marsha Mills’ life, are comfortable with the roles they played in this particular case because there is no doubt that she resides in prison today because of their expertise or lack thereof.