The Michigan Supreme Court has granted a new trial to a man convicted of the death of a child under his care because his trial attorney failed to call expert witnesses in his defense. During the initial trial in 2012, prosecutors used a handful of expert witnesses to suggest the defendant had abused the child, but the defense attorney did not respond with any experts who would propose an alternative theory of the injuries.
Michigan Man Receives New Murder Trial
Defendant Leo Ackley, 28, was convicted in 2012 for the 2011 death of 3-year-old Baylee Stenman, his girlfriend’s daughter who was left in his care. Baylee died of subdural hematoma caused by head trauma that prosecutors believe was inflicted by Ackley while he was looking after the toddler. Ackley, who has maintained his innocence throughout his imprisonment, argues that the girl fell off of her bed during a nap, and the death was a tragic accident instead of an act of child abuse. During trial, prosecutors called five forensic and medical expert witnesses to the stand in order to explain the likely cause of the injuries that killed Baylee, but Ackley’s defense attorney did not provide a single expert to refute the testimony.
According to a unanimous ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court, the failure to call a single rebuttal expert witness to support the defendant’s theory of the crime qualified as ineffective assistance of counsel. Given the failure of Ackley’s defense to consult an expert witness when medical expertise was critical to the outcome of the case, the Michigan Court granted a new murder trial to be conducted with a different attorney, giving Ackley the opportunity to fully explain his position in a court of law. The decision was welcomed by Ackley’s family and his new attorney, Andrew Rodenhouse, who said that the Court was sending a message about the importance of incorporating expert witnesses into a complete defense. Rodenhouse told reporters, “That’s really what the court is saying … telling trial attorneys, defense attorneys who do these things that you got to do a little more than just show up on the day of the trial. You got to actually do your homework and be prepared.”
Michigan Supreme Court Focuses on Use of Expert Witnesses in New Trial
In vacating Ackely’s conviction and remanding the case for a new trial, the Michigan Supreme Court emphasized the importance of expert witnesses during trials where the source of a victim’s injury were a point of contention. Writing that expert testimony would have been “critical in this case to explain whether the cause of the child’s death was intentional or accidental,” the court found that the attorney’s failure to consult an expert, “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and there was a reasonable probability that this error affected the outcome of the trial.”
The Court went on to explain the importance of an expert in Ackley’s original trial, ““Counsel’s failure to engage expert testimony rebutting the state’s expert testimony and failure to become versed in the technical subject matter constituted a constitutional flaw in the representation, not reasonable strategy. Given the centrality of expert testimony to the prosecution’s proofs and the highly contested nature of the underlying medical issue, counsel’s single error of failing to consult an expert who could meaningfully assist him constituted ineffective assistance.” Ultimately, because at the case involved an “unexplained and unwitnessed” death of a child, a complete defense necessitated expert witness involvement and the attorney’s failure to produce such evidence constituted a failure that warrants a second trial to correct.
Ackley is currently serving a life sentence for his conviction, and will likely remain in prison during the course of his new trial. Prosecutors have expressed confidence that they are able to earn a second conviction on the strength of the evidence, but without question Ackley’s defense team will present at least one forensic medical expert witness to contend that Baylee’s tragic death was the result of an accident and not child abuse.