In 2002, Jeffrey “Jeff” Havard was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi for the sexual assault and murder of his girlfriend’s six-month-old daughter, Chloe Britt. In May of 2016, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing for Jeff’s case based on defense claims of new evidence due to changes in the science behind Shaken Baby Syndrome. In September of 2018, Jeff’s death penalty sentence was vacated, and a resentencing hearing was ordered. On December 18, 2018, Jeff was resentenced to life without parole. Jeff is now off of death row, but his fight is far from over.
The truth about this case is clear. Chloe slipped from Jeff’s arms while lifting her from the tub after a bath, causing her head to hit a nearby toilet. New expert evidence supports Jeff’s claims. Chloe’s death was a tragic accident, not a murder. Jeff Havard is innocent.
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What really happened in this case?
On the evening of February 21, 2002, Jeffrey Havard’s live-in girlfriend went to a store to buy groceries, leaving her six-month-old infant, Chloe, in Jeff’s care. Chloe spit up on her clothing and bedding. Jeff gave her a bath, and he accidentally dropped her. Her head struck the toilet.
Chloe did not seem to be seriously injured, so Jeff changed her into clean clothes, put her to bed, and said nothing about what had happened. When the baby’s mother first checked on her that evening, she seemed fine. A short time later, however, she discovered that Chloe did not appear to be breathing. She and Jeff took the baby to a hospital emergency room, where she died after attempts to resuscitate her failed.
There is no question that Jeff exercised bad judgment that night. He should have explained what had happened right away. But he did not want to admit he had dropped the baby, so he said nothing. It was a big mistake. Medical personnel did not know what had triggered the emergency, and they misunderstood what they saw. Serious brain damage often causes a patient’s sphincter muscle to relax, so the anus becomes dilated. That was what happened to Chloe. The doctors and nurses treating the baby thought it meant she had been anally raped.
They were not the first medical professionals to misread this condition. Similar allegations have arisen in enough cases to warrant a systematic study of accidental deaths involving children. Researchers found that anal dilation in such cases is a common phenomenon. It is not an indicator of sexual abuse.
The hospital staff who treated Chloe, and the police who were called in to investigate, did not know this. Jeff was arrested and held in custody. Two days later, when he finally told police what had happened, the late disclosure only served to damage his credibility. By then, authorities believed he had raped and killed an infant.
This was the story that circulated through the community as well. Rumors took on a life of their own, blurring the line between fact and imagination. By the time Jeff was tried, in December 2002, witnesses who had seen the baby at the hospital were recalling injuries that are not shown in photos or recorded in the autopsy report. Defense attorneys did little to challenge these witnesses or explain the medical evidence, which they did not understand themselves. Jeff was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in a proceeding that lasted less than two days.
The jury may have reached the only decision they could, because the trial did not clarify the facts of the medical report or what these facts really mean. Two forensic pathologists examined the medical report after the trial, and both concluded that Chloe’s death was accidental. Her autopsy revealed none of the injuries that would surely be present had she been sexually assaulted. Even the prosecution’s medical expert, Dr. Steven Hayne, has repeatedly stated that the evidence does not support a claim of sexual assault.
Hayne clarified in a 2014 affidavit that he specifically told prosecutors on more than one occasion prior to trial that he could not support a finding a sexual abuse. This information was withheld from the defense, which is a Brady violation.
Most shockingly, the defense learned in January of 2014, 12 years after the conviction, that Hayne had looked at tissue sections under a microscope and found definitively that there was no evidence of sexual assault. In a case where suspicion of sexual assault only arose when ER doctors and nurses noticed what they believed to be physical evidence of sexual abuse. Hayne’s microscopic findings were clearly exculpatory, and would have positively shown that the doctors and nurses had simply misinterpreted what they saw. The state withheld this evidence from the defense as well and failed to tell the doctors and nurses about it before they testified.
Unbelievably, the State chose to ignore Hayne’s findings and prosecute Jeff for murder during the course of a sexual assault.
Prosecutors stood before the Court and told the jury that Dr. Hayne had “confirmed the nurses and doctors worst fear, that this child had been sexually abused.” They knew that Dr. Hayne had done no such thing; in fact, he had done just the opposite. Jeffrey Havard is on death row because the prosecution lied to the jury.
A reasonable jury, presented with the evidence that was illegally withheld from the defense, would have reached a different verdict.
Jeffrey Havard is the first to admit he was guilty of bad judgment on the night Chloe died. He was 22 years old, and he was scared. But he did not commit murder in the course of a sexual assault. He has spent more than a decade on death row, awaiting execution for a crime that never took place.