By Curtis Krueger, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, August 28, 2010
LARGO — Former foster mother Tenesia Brown looked ahead stoically for a full minute after a jury found her not guilty of murdering a baby in her care.
But then the verdict visibly sank in, as she tearfully hugged her attorney. Her husband, Marcus, on a bench just behind her, bowed his head and wept.
Fighting this charge for the past four years “was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do because my wife was facing life in prison,” Marcus Brown said after the verdict Friday night.
Not any more. Tenesia Brown walked out of the Pinellas County criminal courts complex facing no criminal charges for the first time since 2006.
Although there were no witnesses, prosecutors said circumstantial and medical evidence showed Brown had caused catastrophic brain injuries to Lazon Gulley, when he was 14-months old. They said Lazon suffered all the classic symptoms of shaken baby syndrome, went into a coma, and was unable to survive without life support. Even with it, he died within two years.
But defense attorney Ron Kurpiers attacked the very diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome during the four-day trial, and brought in experts who said the science behind the syndrome is faulty.
One of the experts was Ronald Uscinski, a neurosurgeon affiliated with Georgetown and George Washington universities, who said he saw no evidence of abuse.
“I don’t know that this child was a victim of head trauma at all,” Uscinski said.
Uscinski said he was paid $10,000 for Friday’s testimony and $2,000 to review and analyze records, which brought sharp criticism from prosecutors.
“He’s getting paid $10,000 to take the position that shaken baby syndrome or violent head trauma does not happen,” Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger said in her closing argument.
The case dates back to 2006, when Brown was a new foster mother who had been given four children to care for in less than six months. She had not raised children of her own.
On March 3 of that year, Brown had to get off work early for the third day in a row because Lazon had diarrhea and vomiting. She picked him up from day care, and would later say the boy was conscious at that time.
Shortly after, something went wrong. At home with Lazon and his 3-year-old brother, Brown made a series of calls to her husband and to 911. The boy was taken to All Children’s Hospital with severe medical problems.
“The defendant was alone with the victim for the last 29 minutes of his life. The fact is, when he got to the hospital, he was nonresponsive, he was in cardiac arrest and he had a subdural hemorrhage,” Grissinger told the jury.
Grissinger’s conclusion: “She killed him.”
Prosecutors relied on testimony from physicians, especially Sally Smith, medical director of Pinellas County’s child protection team. Smith said Lazon suffered from bleeding beneath a layer around the brain called the dura, and also in his retinas.
Both are signs of shaken baby syndrome, although the preferred term for the condition is now “abusive head trauma,” Smith said.
No one witnessed Brown when she purportedly shook Lazon — and critics complain that the lack of a witness is another hallmark of shaken baby cases that come to court.
Some of the defense’s witnesses steered clear of commenting on shaken baby syndrome itself, and some of them acknowledged some of Lazon’s symptoms could have come from abuse.
But the attack on the diagnosis was a centerpiece of Brown’s defense. Uscinski said once Lazon went into cardiac arrest, his brain was starved of oxygen for several minutes. Uscinski pointed to images that showed the boy’s brain shrank over time. This — and not shaking or other trauma — would have led to the bleeding around his brain, he said.
Kurpiers, the defense attorney, was a bit teary-eyed himself after the verdict, which came after about two hours of deliberation.
“It doesn’t happen often,” he said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232.