Tasha Shelby

Tasha Shelby has spent over half her life imprisoned for a crime she did not commit, based on the now debunked theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome.

3DC Apprentices, Emily Girvan-Dutton and Astrid Parrett with Tasha Shelby 2022

Tasha’s life was forever changed in 2000 when she was convicted of the capital murder of her two-and-a-half-year-old stepson, Bryan, and sentenced to Life Without Parole.  Bryan died in 1997 and Tasha was suspected to have shaken him to death, with her conviction resting on the since debunked hypothesis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

Her case is extraordinary in-so-far as the original medical examiner, Dr. Leroy Riddick, became convinced himself that the SBS diagnosis was improper, and that other medical information better reflected what happened. He recently amended the death certificate to reflect “accident caused by a pre-existing hereditary condition” rather than “homicide”. Despite this, Tasha remains in prison.

Who is Tasha Shelby?

Tasha Shelby is 47 years old. Her short life prior to her arrest at the age of just 22 years old was characterised by instability.

Tasha and her father moved away from her mother when she was just two years old. Following the death of her father when she was 14 years old, Tasha travelled across the country, staying with different family members, including her mother.  She also moved schools frequently, failing grades and dropping out after falling pregnant at the age of 18.  During this period, she faced constant rejection and eventual abandonment by her mother and didn’t see her again until she was in jail.

Tasha became increasingly close with her Aunt Penny, a Texan woman who now lives in Tennessee with five miniature donkeys and a room ready for Tasha when she is released. Aunt Penny has campaigned tirelessly for Tasha over the last two decades, wholeheartedly believing in her innocence and using every connection she can to raise awareness of Tasha’s case.

Tasha has also received a great deal of support throughout her incarceration from her Aunt Linda. When Tasha was without her legal team, Aunt Linda stepped up and undertook a thorough investigation into every detail of her case. She has provided a shoulder for Tasha to cry on since she was little and continues to advocate on Tasha’s behalf today.

Tasha is distinctive, standing at just 4 foot 9 with Koolaid-dyed pink stripes in her hair. A friend of hers describes her as being stuck in the 90s – still obsessed with scrunchies and glitter and a positive, radiant and youthful personality that belies her age.

In other ways, though, during her incarceration, Tasha has not only transformed her own life, but the lives of those around her. She has helped to guide multiple women through prison, settling them into their new routine, leading them away from misconduct, and teaching them how to make the most of life behind bars – including how to make a stir fry in a microwave!!

The Case

In the early morning of 30th May 1997, Tasha heard a ‘thump’ coming from the bedroom where her 2-and-a-half-year-old stepson Bryan (Little Bryan) slept. Upon entering the room, she saw Little Bryan on the floor, having a seizure and gasping for air.

She immediately called her boyfriend Bryan (Big Bryan) and asked him to come back from work to take them to the hospital. The three of them arrived at the hospital and a day later Little Bryan’s life support machine was turned off after he was declared brain dead.

Tasha was immediately labelled as the perpetrator of Little Bryan’s fatal injuries, being the last adult who had him in her care, in part because Mississippi has a mandatory reporting law: if medical professionals report injuries to children as abuse, they are immune from all liability, criminal or civil, whereas if they don’t they can be found liable. This creates an inevitable pressure to see abuse.

A misplaced medical diagnosis

The tendency to report everything as abuse was compounded by the medical professionals’ belief in the subsequently debunked theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome where cranial trauma was believed to be caused by vigorous shaking: the doctors diagnosed Little Bryan as an SBS victim. The police overlooked evidence that suggested Tasha might not have been responsible, including a long medical history indicating a seizure disorder that could have explained Little Bryan’s death.

One of the significant factors in the case disregarded by the police was that Tasha could not have physically committed this crime. Not only was Little Bryan a large two-year-old at 3 feet tall and 33lbs, but Tasha, a diminutive 4 foot 9, was weakened by a caesarean section and tubal ligation she had undergone just two weeks earlier. She had been told by her doctors that if she lifted anything heavy, her stitches would open, and she would injure herself. None of Tasha’s stitches were opened.

In 2000, after a three-day long trial, where the jury discussed Tasha’s case for only three to four hours, Tasha was found guilty of Capital Murder by a unanimous vote. In a second vote, she narrowly avoided the death penalty and was given a sentence of life without parole.

Tasha faces the rest of her life in prison and all her previous attempts at appeal and clemency have been rejected despite mounting evidence of her innocence.

Death certificate changed by medical examiner

Dr Riddick, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Little Bryan and appeared for the State at Tasha’s trial in 2000, later changed his mind about the cause of death, due to the wealth of developments in science around SBS.

In addition, evidence of a family history of seizures and multiple accounts of observed seizure-like symptoms in Little Bryan were brought to Dr Riddick’s attention.

In the 2018 post-conviction hearing, he testified that he now believed Little Bryan had a seizure and it was impossible his injuries were caused by shaking.

Dr Riddick became so convinced that he got the original cause of death wrong, that he subsequently altered the death certificate from “homicide” to “accident” caused by a pre-existing “seizure disorder.”

Tasha’s Life in prison

Tasha uses every day to set herself up for success so that she can give back and contribute to society once she is free.

While in county jail, Tasha achieved her General Equivalency Degree (GED) on her first try. But it almost didn’t happen when Tasha stopped attending classes due to her inability to pay for the exam. When a teacher spotted her potential and paid the fee, Tasha felt for the first time that someone believed in her and she was inspired to tutor other students.

After the trial, Tasha worked hard to gain her cosmetology licence:

 “I became the first women with a life without parole sentence to receive a cosmetology license at CMCF (Central Mississippi Correctional Facility).”

Tasha didn’t stop there, fighting for the right to take courses usually unavailable to lifers, including Business Technology, and is now certified in Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

She was also selected to be a student in Mississippi College where she was a star pupil:

“By the summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to be involved in a program called the Prison to College Pipeline Program. I am now enrolled as a student in Mississippi College. I have now earned 15 credits with 3.8 GPA.”

A 3.8 is a very commendable score as the highest one can get is a 4.0. Tasha also discovered a love for history. She often saw her plight reflected in the accounts of women of the past. One professor who taught Tasha said:

“She described the way in which her courses with us had widened her world, given her hope, and helped her connect her experiences to other women over the course of American history.”

Tasha now has the potential to realise her dream of becoming a history professor once released. She wants to educate others that it is possible to get through the worst experience of your life.

Shaken Baby Syndrome

Tasha’s conviction rested on the theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome, a hypothesis that since her trial has been debunked. The theory is that if an infant presents with what is known as “the triad” of symptoms: subdural haematoma (SDH), retinal haemorrhaging (RH), and cerebral edema (CE), the last adult to care for the child is automatically held responsible for those injuries. SBS is almost unique as it is not a diagnosis of an injury – the doctor does not treat SBS, but the SDH or CE. Rather SBS is a diagnosis of a crime, placing doctors in the position of telling the jury that the accused is guilty based on very little evidence.

Symptoms inconsistent with Shaking

Not only did Little Bryan not have retinal haemorrhaging (and, thus, not satisfy the triad of injuries) but the presentation of those symptoms is no longer considered diagnostic of shaking, but is instead associated with other causes. Infants are often born with subdural haemorrhaging and any one of these symptoms can be brought on by nontraumatic causes such as illness or genetic conditions.

Multiple other studies have shown that the force and acceleration required to cause these injuries is far beyond anything that Tasha could have achieved by shaking. Biomechanical studies have also found that as the mass of the infant increases, the accelerations measured during shaking decrease. One study found that accelerations measured during the shaking of an infant model with mass 11kg were 10 times lower than those recorded using a smaller model of mass 4-5kg. Notably, Little Bryan weighed 15kg/33lb.

Additionally, the location of injuries in Little Bryan’s brain were inconsistent with a finding of shaking. In order to support the SBS hypothesis even among those who believe it, one would expect to find injuries across both sides of the brain. However, Little Bryan’s brain only suffered injury on his right side suggesting either a non-traumatic cause or a short fall, according to Dr Mack, a radiologist who examined Little Bryan’s CT scans and presented her findings in Tasha’s 2018 post-conviction relief hearing.

Furthermore, Dr Ophoven, a prominent forensic pathologist who also spoke at the post-conviction relief hearing, found that Bryan’s brain and optical nerve disks were already so swollen when he arrived at hospital that the swelling had to have developed over a period of 48-72 hours and could not have been caused by an incident that occurred just minutes before arriving.

The altered death certificate means Tasha is facing a life in prison without parole, despite the responsible official (Dr. Riddick) believing that no crime was committed. Every day Tasha spends in prison would be, under this scenario, an additional injustice – yet she has already spend 25 years locked up.

 

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