Update below: Some deaths are so brutal, so shocking to the public conscience, that they seem to cry out for retribution. That seemed to be the case in the fatal trauma suffered by thirteen-month-old Brookelynn Palmer, whose head injuries were so severe that prosecutors maintained she must have been swung with tremendous force by her mother's boyfriend, Justin Hale.
As we reported last year, Hale was facing a possible life in prison on charges of first-degree murder and reckless child abuse resulting in death. But last month, after an eight-day trial, it took a Jefferson County jury barely more than an hour to find him not guilty on all counts. The case against him had a particularly revealing and disturbing flaw -- a pre-existing injury that may have contributed to Brookelynn's death and was missed by several medical professionals involved in her treatment.
The press release about the not-guilty verdict issued by the First Judicial District Attorney's Office makes no mention of the previous injury or the fact that Hale's defense team disclosed its existence to prosecutors months before the trial. That alarms Hale attorney Matthew Beach, who tried repeatedly to dissuade prosecutors from pursuing the case as a homicide.
"The Jefferson County District Attorney published a blatantly incomplete version of the facts in an attempt to defame my client and cover up their mishandling of this case," says Beach. "It is frightening that the people in charge of prosecuting this case were unaware that they were in possession of medical proof of my client's innocence for the better part of a year. It is absolutely terrifying that, once confronted with that evidence and their own incompetence, they decided to proceed with a first-degree murder case against my client."
On May 18, 2013, Hale had been watching Brookelynn at his Westminster home while her mother, Dorothy Palmer, was in the next room. Palmer later told police that she heard a "thump." Hale told her that Brookelynn had fallen, hitting her head on a coffee table. The girl began to vomit and have seizures. She was transported to Samaritan Hospital, then airlifted to Children's Hospital, where she died from what experts said was a massive skull fracture. The Jefferson County Coroner's Office ruled that the death was a homicide.
But when Beach examined the girl's medical records, he found something hospital staff had missed -- a dark line in an x-ray that indicated a pre-existing skull fracture. "I don't have any medical training, but I noticed it, and it looked weird to me," Beach says.
As it turned out, her mother had taken Brookelynn to St. Anthony's North two weeks before the coffee table incident. She reported that she'd fallen down the stairs while carrying the girl. Several x-rays were taken, but both the radiologist and the physician's assistant at St. Anthony's failed to recognize the skull fracture. The child protection team at Children's that reviewed the girl's records after the May 18 injury also missed it.
After confirming the pre-existing fracture with his own expert, Beach took the records to Jefferson County prosecutors. The forensic pathologist who'd performed the autopsy, who had not previously had the x-rays available, changed his finding on the manner of death from "homicide" to "undetermined," reasoning that an accidental injury to the head, compounded by the previous fracture, couldn't be ruled out. Yet the Jefferson County coroner declined to change the death certificate, and prosecutors insisted on taking the case to trial.
At trial the prosecution's experts sought to downplay the importance of the previous fracture, but reasonable doubt prevailed. "If you're going to convict someone of murder, you have to have reliable science," Beach notes.
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The case was Beach's first murder trial -- and his first murder acquittal. And an eye-opening encounter, he says, with what trained child-abuse specialists can get wrong. "It's just shocking to me that this was missed at St. Anthony's and then again at Children's," he says.
Update 10:30 a.m.: In a phone conversation this morning, First Judicial District Attorney Pete Weir defended his office's handling of the case. "This case was reviewed very carefully at a number of different levels," he said. "We had at least two experts who said it took very violent actions on the part of Mr. Hale to result in the death. We felt justice demanded that it was brought to a jury."
Katie Kurtz, one of the deputy district attorneys handling the case, noted that her team consulted with some of the state's leading experts in deciding to take the case to trial. Even with the presence of the pre-existing skull fracture, she says, "it still took a tremendous amount of force to cause her fatal injuries, which weren't at all consistent with a short fall."
But discussion with jurors after the verdict, she added, indicated that the expert testimony wasn't sufficient to overcome the panel's doubts about the case. Although the prosecution has no obligation to prove a motive, jurors often look for some kind of "trigger" to explain the alleged explosive outburst of anger that prosecutors contended was the cause of Brookelynn's death.