Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

DA takes up dead child's case
Ruled slaying in 1996, it languished
Jane O. Hansen - Staff
Tuesday, May 9, 2000

When 2-year-old Tavelle Davis was rushed to the hospital dead, bruised and scarred, the medical examiner called it a homicide.

"That indicates that someone abused this child," Dr. Carol A. Terry, a Fulton County medical examiner, said when the child died in 1996. Officials promptly referred the case to the district attorney.

But four years later, there has been no arrest and no indictment. Instead, the death of Tavelle quietly slipped through the cracks.

Now inquiries by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and an investigation by the GBI have renewed interest in the case, and Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard says he hopes to seek an indictment in the case this month, possibly for murder.

But some people wonder what took so long.

A spokesman for Howard, who had not yet taken office when Tavelle died, says the prosecutor only recently learned of the case.

"When we looked into it, Mr. Howard was not pleased with the length of time it has been here," said Erik Friedly, Howard's spokesman.

Friedly said an assistant district attorney, whom he refused to name, had decided in 1996 that the best strategy would be to present the case directly to the grand jury for an indictment. But that never happened, and until recently, the case appears to have sat.

Tavelle's and other child homicides are more likely than adult deaths to remain unresolved. Unlike adult victims, the majority of child victims die at the hands of their parents or caretakers. As a result, there's less likelihood of someone pressuring the criminal justice system to solve and prosecute the crime.

Friedly defended the slow pace of prosecution in Tavelle's death, calling the case complicated and the cause of death unclear.

But the state's chief medical examiner, who recently reviewed the autopsy, said the cause of death is quite clear.

Like many children who die from abuse, Tavelle already was known to the Fulton Department of Family and Children Services. Tavelle's mother was allegedly a drug addict who had given her son to a friend to raise, according to child abuse records. The records show that in 1995 --- more than a year before he died --- the baby's guardian brought him to the hospital underweight, covered in marks and sores and having difficulty breathing.

According to records and a hospital social worker, the guardian said she'd shaken the child because he'd suddenly stopped breathing. But doctors found his brain had been injured so severely, they had to put him on a ventilator to breathe. They concluded he'd been the victim of shaken baby syndrome, a severe form of abuse.

"There's no resuscitation that comes remotely close to the huge amount of force that causes shaken baby syndrome," says Dr. Randell Alexander, a leading national expert on the syndrome, who's been called as an expert witness in the case.

At the time, doctors also were concerned because the baby had a burn and other marks, and he appeared underfed. While in the hospital, Tavelle, whose birth and birthweight had been normal, quickly gained three pounds.

"The question of the head injuries combined with the weight combined with the abrasions we saw just didn't make sense to us," said Phyllis Miller, then chief of social work at Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital. "I think everyone was alarmed."

Once doctors concluded the child was a victim of battered child syndrome, records show that Miller hounded Fulton DFACS not to return the child to the guardian. DFACS went to court to remove the child but failed to subpoena Miller or the doctors. On Feb. 10, 1995, a Fulton Juvenile Court judge returned the child to the guardian without hearing any testimony from hospital staff.

By April 1996, Tavelle was dead. Dr. Kris Sperry, chief medical examiner with the GBI, says the autopsy shows that Tavelle died from a combination of his earlier brain injuries and more recent neglect. "After the child was sent home with the caregiver, he was starved, neglected and dehydrated," Sperry said.

Today Miller says someone should have been prosecuted the first time the child came into the hospital.

Anyone who violently shakes a baby should be charged with a crime, Alexander says. "When shaken baby syndrome occurs, someone always should be prosecuted," he said. "This is very serious stuff."

But nothing happened in the case until now. After newspaper articles last winter revealed the deaths of hundreds of Georgia children already under the protection of the state, Gov. Roy Barnes launched a GBI investigation in January into 13 of the deaths. Tavelle's was one of them.

"The Fulton County case, for whatever reasons, had fallen through the cracks," said Buddy Nix, GBI director who appointed a task force of agents to the investigation. "That case was dead in the water, had it not been for the scrutiny of the task force."

Friedly said child homicides are particularly tough to prosecute because juries have a hard time believing an adult would intentionally harm a child. The goal now, he said, is to present an airtight case.

"We want to be sure when we ultimately take this to a jury that we're going to be able to prove the case," he said.

In the meantime, child advocates hope a new law creating an ombudsman over Georgia's child welfare system will help prevent other children's deaths from being forgotten.

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