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Changed opinions, new sentence: Ex-death row inmate in Mississippi gets life in baby death


JACKSON, Miss. — A judge ruled Monday that a Mississippi man should spend the rest of his life in prison after the state Supreme Court ordered a review of evidence that he shook an infant to death.

Adams County Circuit Judge Forrest Johnson resentenced Jeffrey Havard to life in prison without parole. The move came after Johnson overturned Havard’s death sentence in September but refused to order a new trial, disappointing lawyers who say evidence of a murder is weak.

Havard, now 40, says he accidentally dropped his girlfriend’s baby, 6-month-old Chloe Madison Brittin 2002, causing her to hit her head on a toilet. His lawyers said that since Havard was convicted, physicians have changed their opinion about such injuries.

One of the state’s witnesses in the original trial was pathologist Steven Hayne, whose autopsy work and testimony has been the subject of repeated challenges across Mississippi.

During a 2017 hearing, Hayne testified that he still believed Britt’s death was a homicide, but he also testified that he’d now describe the death as “abusive head trauma.” In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised physicians to describe certain head injuries to infants. Other experts, though, testified during the 2017 hearing that they didn’t believe shaking alone could cause death.

Defense lawyers also wanted the court to reconsider the forensic evidence surrounding claims that Havard sexually assaulted the infant. Johnson, though, refused to let such testimony go forward.

In his September ruling, Johnson wrote that there’s too much other evidence of Havard’s guilt to overturn his conviction, including conflicting statements he gave. In one statement, he said he didn’t know who or what caused the girl’s injuries, while in a second statement he told police she fell, that he dropped Britt while bathing her and then shook her.

Lawyers for Havard last week filed notice with the state Supreme Court that they’re appealing Johnson’s decision to affirm Havard’s conviction.

Despite upholding the verdict, Johnson set aside the death penalty, writing that “while the evidence presented by the petitioner is not sufficient to undermine this court’s confidence in the conviction, there is a cautious disturbance in confidence of the sentence of death, even if slight.” That left life without parole as Johnson’s only option under a capital murder conviction.

Johnson ordered Havard returned to state prison.