At 44 years old, Tasha Shelby has spent over half of her life in prison. Convicted of capital murder in the 1997 death of her fiance’s toddler son, the prosecution and a medical examiner pointed to shaken baby syndrome.
But that same medical examiner, since retired, has changed the cause of death from homicide to accidental.
Shelby, talking to the Clarion Ledger from the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County Tuesday, vows she’ll never stop fighting to prove her innocence.
On Wednesday, her attorneys and the state will make oral arguments before the Mississippi Court of Appeals.
The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office is representing the state in the appeal but declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. However, in a brief filed with the appeals court, the state argues, among other things, that the changed opinion on the cause of death isn’t new. The state also disputes the toddler’s history of seizures and maintains the child died by blunt force trauma.
Shelby’s conviction was upheld last year by Harrison County Circuit Court Judge Roger T. Clark.
The child’s father, Bryan Thompson III, who once testified on Shelby’s behalf, told the Clarion Ledger Wednesday that the toddler “never had any seizures of any kind.”
‘I made a mistake,’ retired medical examiner says
Dr. LeRoy Riddick, a retired medical examiner for the state of Alabama, performed the autopsy on 2½-year-old Bryan “Little Bryan” Thompson IV. Riddick testified at Shelby’s trial that the injuries weren’t accidental and the toddler died of “blunt force trauma to the head.” Shelby was convicted of capital murder in June 2000 and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2016, however, in a sworn affidavit Riddick wrote that, at the request of Shelby’s legal team, he reviewed the toddler’s medical records “and reexamined my own files pertaining to this case.”
In the affidavit he writes: “If, at the time of the autopsy and trial, I had known about Bryan Thompson IV’s seizures days before his collapse, I would have approached the case differently. Moreover, the forensic evidence supporting ‘The Shaken Baby Syndrome’ and severe brain reactions to minor trauma has changed significantly since 1997. Given this information, it is likely that my conclusions might have been different.”
Last week, Riddick told the Clarion Ledger that the injuries could have been caused by a fall from seizures or from being moved multiple times from the house to the hospital.
“The major reason that I changed was I made a mistake and the mistake was in terms of the manner of death,” Riddick said.
A thump in the bedroom
On the night of May 30, 1997, Shelby was in bed in the Biloxi home she shared with Thompson and three young children — his son, Little Bryan, her son, and their newborn.
She had given birth 10 days prior via cesarean section and was supposed to be on light bedrest. Thompson was at work and Shelby told investigators she heard a thump come from Little Bryan’s bedroom. She got out of bed, went in his room, and found the toddler convulsing on the floor.
She called Thompson and when he arrived home, the two rushed the toddler to the emergency room, driving so fast they were pulled over. Police then escorted them to Biloxi Regional Hospital, with an officer jumping into the family’s van and performing CPR on the toddler, Shelby’s attorney, Valena Beety with the West Virginia Innocence Project, said. In 2011, Beety took on Shelby’s case while with the Mississippi Innocence Project.
Within hours, the toddler was transported to the University of South Alabama Hospital in Mobile. He died the next day.
Beety said, typically, doctors look for three symptoms in a shaken baby case: Swelling of the brain, bleeding of the brain and bleeding in the retina.
In this case, she said, authorities believed the toddler had swelling of the brain and bleeding of the brain. But, she argues, the toddler had a history of seizures that, combined with a lack of oxygen, could have caused both.
Riddick agrees, saying so in the affidavit and noting that the toddler “had a seizure disorder and was having multiple seizures in the days before his death.”
Thompson, who lives on the Mississippi Coast, is adamant that his son “never had no seizures, ever.” He told the Clarion Ledger he believes Shelby killed the toddler and regrets testifying on her behalf. But, he said, he was “trying to keep my family together.”
“Looking back, it’s psychotic I couldn’t see what happened,” he said.
After the toddler’s death, Thompson said he tried to kill himself. He was using cocaine and heroin, he said, overdosing 11 times. Each of the 11 times he overdosed on heroin, he was saved by NARCAN. He served time in jail and has since been involved in a drug recovery program. He’s been sober for three years, he said.
“I relived the whole thing when I got sober,” Thompson said. “I relived it because I never really faced when I was on drugs it but it’s like the whole thing is happening again.”
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‘No indication of real violence’
In speaking with the Clarion Ledger, Riddick said the toddler had external bruises, “but did not have an lacerations or tears.”
“The bruises were not deep in the sense that they did not go down to the muscle or anything else,” he said. “Internally, there were no fractures and there were no tears of any internal organs. So, they were not the injuries that you would think was due to violence.”
The toddler’s injuries “can be accounted for, by one, from falls from a short distance,” he said.
“The minor injuries that he had could all be accounted for by his falling from the bed from having seizures while he was there and by being moved from the house to the hospital, from the hospital to another hospital, and in the hospital,” Riddick said.
“The minor injury with Bryan can cause the brain to swell. When the brain swells, it compresses vital centers and leads to death.The subdural hemorrhage was a small subdural. The neurosurgeon who reviewed the case said it was a small subdural…minor movement of the head can cause those but this is not the kind of injury that I testified to. A tear takes far more force.”
Because of that, Riddick changed the cause of death from homicide to accidental. The toddler’s death certificate was officially changed in June 2018.
“It’s not totally innocuous,” he said. “All the bruises could be accounted for…I had no indication of real violence so I changed the manner of death to accident.”
The situation, Beety said, is a “double tragedy.”
“Little Bryan dies and now Tasha is in prison for life,” she said.
Beety questioned how Shelby could have shaken the toddler in such a way to cause death.
He was 3 feet tall and weighed approximately 30 pounds, she said. Shelby, who is 4-feet-9-inches and weighed approximately 120 pounds, was recovering from a c-section and a tubal ligation. She’d also had her stitches removed two days prior to the incident.
In speaking with the Clarion Ledger, Shelby was advised to not talk about the specifics of the case but she maintained her innocence.
‘I loved being a mama’
Born in Columbus, Shelby and her father moved to Texas when she was 2 years old. He remarried when she was 4 and Shelby eventually became the oldest of seven siblings. She relished the role, she said, and was the “caretaker” of the bunch.
But then, when she was 14, her father died in a car accident. In an effort to try to reconnect with her biological mother, Shelby moved back to Mississippi.
She dropped of of high school after 10th grade and later became pregnant with a son, Dakota, at 18. The relationship with Dakota’s father didn’t work out and Shelby was raising a young son on her own.
She and Thompson had been friends for years and Shelby found herself drawn to the fact that he was a “good guy.”
The couple soon moved in together, got engaged and, at 21, Shelby became pregnant again. She was “super excited” for the young family to grow.
“I loved being a mama,” she said. “I had the two boys and I was having a little girl.”
Thompson had been fighting for custody of his son and, after Dakota’s third birthday, Little Bryan came to live with the couple permanently.
“I was just a stay-at-home mama and Bryan worked and we were just doing our thing every day and that’s how I liked it,” she said. “To me, that’s just what I was always supposed to do.”
Thompson worked in lumber and Shelby stayed at home with the boys. Their days were filled with trips to feed the birds and the Biloxi aquarium — both boys like seeing the turtles — and venturing down to the beach.
About six months prior to his death, Little Bryan was burned by bath water. Beety said Shelby and Thompson took him to the hospital. The state investigated the incident and found it to be accidental.
I thought, ‘This is all going to be straightened out’
That first night in jail, in between the tears, Shelby said she thought “that someone was going to come and hear the truth and listen to me.”
“I thought they had made a mistake, I thought ‘Why is this happening?’ I was so confused, I didn’t understand. I was scared … I just felt so lost and alone and thought ‘This is all going to be straightened out tomorrow.’
“Of course, a cliche, but tomorrow never comes because here we are 22½ years later and nothing has ever been straightened out.”
The entire experience, she said, has been “unreal.”
When Devon was born, she had dark hair like her father, the roundness of Shelby’s face and “the Shelby nose.”
She was only a few weeks old when Shelby was arrested.
“Everything happened so fast,” she said. “They came and took her and I was arrested shortly after that. I’ve never seen her again in real life, only in pictures.”
Newborn daughter was adopted
After the trial, Thompson gave up custody and Devon was adopted.
Her daughter, Shelby said, doesn’t know she exists.
“She thinks the people who have raised her are her mom and dad,” Tasha said. “She doesn’t even know that I’m somebody in this world.”
Family friends have found the young woman on social media and shown pictures to Shelby over the years. She recognizes herself in the photos.
“At this point she looks identical to me,” Shelby said. “The day we ever do get to see face to face, she’ll know without a doubt I’m her mama.”
But she hasn’t reached out to her and has asked family not to as well. She wants to be “respectful” and give her adoptive mother a chance to tell her first. She’s hopeful that day will come soon.
“I always have a dream of this to all be over, to be vindicated and for the court to finally see and justice really prevail and to go to her and say, ‘Here I am.'”
Letters from son and a divorce
After years of not having a relationship, Dakota reached out to Shelby when he was 15 years old but the two never got a chance to reconnect in person. Two years later, he was arrested in Missouri. Mother and son wrote letters throughout their incarcerations. He got out of prison last year. He turns 26 this year.
Sitting in prison, Shelby said she mourns the losses.
“To me, Little Bryan was never my stepchild,” she said. “He was just a part of me, same as Dakota. I miss him tremendously, as much as I miss Dakota and Devon now.”
Shelby and Thompson married in the aftermath of Little Bryan’s death but divorced in 2016. They haven’t talked since 1998, before he testified on her behalf at trial, she said. She cited abandonment in the divorce papers.
“I held onto a lot of things that didn’t hold on to me,” she said.
This article was originally published by ClarionLedger.com.
Scott Juceam is one of the leading advocates against Shaken Baby Syndrome. Scott’s life changed when his daughter Hannah was shaken to death by her nanny in 2006. Since then, Scott has dedicated his life to preventing Shaken Baby Syndrome and child abuse.