September 18, 2020

A Mississippi judge faces one of the most important decisions of his career on whether a death row inmate deserves a new trial

NATCHEZ — The judge who will decide the fate of a man on death row said Wednesday a decision should come within the next few months.

The case of Jeffrey Havard, convicted in 2002 of capital murder in the death of his girlfriend’s 6-month-old daughter, currently awaits a decision from Circuit Court Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson on whether Havard deserves a new trial.

Johnson said a delay in filing the court transcript caused the process to linger, but attorneys are now required to submit briefings in approximately the next 30 days, after which point Johnson can issue a ruling.

The judge said he would have a ruling “clearly by summer,” though he said in less specific terms that he would not let the decision hang in the balance for long.

“I don’t anticipate siting on this thing too long before I render a decision,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty important case. It’s a pretty big deal.”

In August 2017, a three-day hearing was held in Adams County due to revised beliefs in the medical field about shaken baby syndrome, which medical examiners in 2002 determined as the cause of death of 6-month-old Chloe Britt.

From the onset, Havard has maintained his innocence and claimed the death resulted from him accidently dropping the baby while removing her from the bathtub, with Britt subsequently hitting her head on the toilet.

Various medical professionals testified in August how contemporary beliefs about shaken baby syndrome could bring the initial 2002 conviction into question.

One such testimony came from Dr. Steven Hayne, a former medical examiner who conducted the 2002 autopsy and whose testimony lent toward Havard’s conviction. This time around, Hayne said pinning Britt’s death solely on shaken baby syndrome would be a mistake due to the observance of the baby’s head injuries.

Wayne State University professor Chris Van Ee also took the stand and claimed that data produced over the last 15 years indicates that medical experts should not normally expect violent shaking to cause head injury to a 6-month- to 1-year-old baby.

University of Mississippi Medical Center child abuse pediatrician Dr. Scott Benton, however, said the blow Britt suffered to the head would not, by itself, be able to have caused her death. Benton further stated that he believed violent shaking contributed to the fatality.

Johnson has called his upcoming decision one of the most important in his more than two decades on the bench.

Havard has been on death row since his 2002 conviction.