A Mississippi woman who pleaded guilty in 2007 to shaking an infant to death will be allowed a hearing to argue that her life sentence should be overturned.
The Infant’s Death
On July 18, 2005, Amy Wilkerson was 29-years-old when she was caring for an 8-week infant child, Tristan Chinn. At 2 pm on that day, Wilderson called 911 and told the authorities that Tristan had stopped breathing.
Investigators questioned Wilkerson after the boy’s injuries turned out to be consistent with those of other victims of shaken baby syndrome. Court records showed that “Wilkerson gave several conflicting accounts of the events surrounding Tristan’s death. At the hospital, Wilkerson told Tristan’s mother that Tristan had been injured while riding in the car. Wilkerson later told police detectives that Tristan’s injury occurred when he fell from the couch and hit his head. Wilkerson eventually confessed that her ‘couch story’ was false and that she had shaken Tristan to death.”
The Legal System
Wilkerson was indicted for capital murder. Wilkerson initially pled not guilty, but later entered a guilty plea for depraved-heart murder. Following her guilty plea, Wilkerson was sentenced to life in prison, with eligibility for parole after 30 years.
Three years later, Wilkerson filed a motion for post-conviction relief, arguing that her trial attorneys were ineffective. The circuit court denied her claim. Wilkerson appealed the dismissal of her motion, arguing that her guilty plea was involuntary and that her trial attorney was ineffective. The Court of Appeals of Mississippi affirmed the lower court’s decision.
The Innocence Project
Wilkerson brought her case to the Innocence Project. The Mississippi Innocence Project and the Wisconsin Innocence Project took her case.
With the help of her Innocence Project lawyers, Wilkerson argues that new evidence has arisen since the date of her trial. New scientific evidence has increasingly discredited shaken baby syndrome as a cause of death and an expert who had originally consulted on her case has been discredited.
Wilkerson’s original defense attorneys had consulted with pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne before trial. Dr. Hayne had opined that the cause of death was shaken baby syndrome. Dr. Hayne has since been discredited. In 2008, the Mississippi public safety commissioner removed Hayne from the state’s list of authorized medical examiners.
Four medical experts on Wilkerson’s legal team, two forensic pathologists, a pediatric neuropathologist, and a neuroradiologist, reviewed the records and believe that Tristan likely died from a stroke. Defense expert forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven wrote, “Tristan’s brain reflects a longstanding pathology that eventually led to collapse while in Ms. Wilkerson’s care, for reasons having nothing to do with intentional trauma.”
Wilkerson’s defense team presented this new evidence to the court. In 2018, Circuit Court Judge Dale Harkey denied Wilkerson a hearing. However, the Mississippi Court of Appeals reversed Judge Harkey’s ruling and decided to allow an evidentiary hearing in Wilkerson’s case.
At this hearing, Wilkerson will be allowed to present expert testimony showing that the infant’s brain injury happened before the baby was placed in her care and that the brain bleeding may have begun at the time of the infant’s birth.