Man found guilty in shaken baby case

Greg Jordan, Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W.Va.
·6 min read

Apr. 2—PRINCETON — A Mercer County man is facing two to 10 years in prison — the most available under the law — after a jury found him guilty Thursday of child abuse that left a 4 and a half month old baby blind in April 2018.

A circuit court jury started its deliberations Wednesday after a two-day trial for Michael David Coffey, 32, of Bluefield, who was charged in 2018 with child abuse resulting in serious injury. After being dismissed Wednesday evening, the jurors resumed deliberations early Thursday morning and reached a verdict a little more than an hour later. The jurors had one choice to make, and that was whether to find Coffey guilty or not guilty.

Attorney John Byrd, who represented Coffey with attorneys Caitlin Flanagan-Morgan and Scott Ash, asked Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope to poll the jury.

"Is this your verdict?" Swope asked each juror.

Each juror replied that it was his or her verdict.

After the jury was dismissed, Flanagan-Morgan made a motion for a new trial, A sentencing date was set for May. Swope said he would rule on the motion then. If the motion is not granted, he will proceed with sentencing.

Prosecuting Attorney Brian Cochran, who represented the state with Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kermit Moore, asked Swope to revoke Coffey's bond. Flanagan-Morgan replied that Coffey had been on bond for two years without incident.

Swope revoked Coffey's bond, stating that he had "bent over backwards" since the case began two years ago, but now 12 jurors had convicted him. The baby had been "permanently and horribly" injured, and Coffee could be considered a flight risk, he added.

Coffey was remanded to the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.

During the two-day trial, physicians and other medical professionals testified about the injuries that the baby, Alexander, had suffered on April 11, 2018. For much of this day, the baby was in Coffey's care.

The case started on April 11, 2018 after the baby's mother, Tuesday Earnest, brought her son to the emergency department at Princeton Community Hospital (PCH). The physician who examined him testified Monday that the baby was lethargic, and that the mother informed him that her son had been vomiting; an infection or dehydration, which has similar symptoms, was suspected at that time. He said that he urged the mother to have her son stay at the hospital overnight, but was told that a regular check-up was scheduled with his pediatrician the next day. Earnest was told to bring her son back to the hospital if his condition changed during the night.

Earnest called her son's pediatrician, Dr. Jamie Blankenship, the morning of April 12, 2018 and had his check-up rescheduled from afternoon to the morning. Blankenship testified that Alexander was lethargic, "listless," and was "noticeably uncomfortable." He did not move unless stimulated. Blankenship told Earnest to take her son back to PCH.

The physician who examined Alexander during his second visit to PCH, Dr. Matthew Dellacona, testified that the space on top of the baby's head where skull bones have not yet closed had swelling at that time. Scans showed bleeding inside the brain, "significant swelling" and a possible fracture. Dellacona said he immediately called the critical care team at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital to make sure "the best treatment was provided and the most expeditious transport" was arraigned. Alexander and his mother were flown by helicopter to the Roanoke, Va. hospital.

Lisa Yates RN, who works for Carilion and consults in pediatric abuse cases, testified that Alexander's injuries "suggested non-accidental trauma."

Another medical professional, Dr. Randal Rupple with Carilion clinic in Roanoke, Va., testified that he was the ICU physician on duty when Alexander was admitted. The baby had a skull fracture, a stroke and swelling in his brain. Rupple said the force which caused the skull fracture was equivalent to the force generated by a three to four-story fall.

"He was clearly shaken," Rupple said.

When questioned by Flanagan-Morgan, Rupple stated that the baby's injuries could have happened 24 to 48 hours before he was scanned at Carilion.

Dr. Joan Phillips, who is certified in child abuse pediatrics, testified that the baby's injuries were consistent with shaken baby syndrome. Phillips, who did not examine the baby, said that she examined medical records and text messages exchanged by Coffey and the baby's mother on April 11, 2018 and an interview Coffey later had with Senior Trooper D.B. Whited of the West Virginia State Police Princeton detachment.

At 8:35 a.m., the baby was "cooing" according to what Coffey told Whited, Phillips testified. By about 12:30 p.m., Coffey was texting the mother — who was at work then — and telling her that the baby was vomiting, and at about 3 p.m. he was "consistently ill," vomiting and "not wanting to do anything but sleep."

Another physician, Dr. Wilbur L. Smith of Iowa, testified about the baby's serious injuries. Using scan images shown to the jury, Smith pointed out brain injuries including swelling. One scan showed blood in the back of the baby's eyes which will leave him with impaired vision.

Earlier in the trial, Blankenship was asked to describe what she witnessed during an appointment when Alexander was about 3 years old. He is still blind from his injuries and has a difficult time eating; he still eats mostly pureed foods. He has "a couple of words. He can say 'mama' and dad,' and he is getting on his hands and knees to crawl, she told Cochran.

Coffey's attorneys told the jurors that the exact time when the baby was injured could not be determined exactly, leaving open the possibility that somebody else had hurt him. Flanagan-Morgan said during the defense's closing argument that Dr. Rupple stated how the injuries could have occurred 24 to 48 hours before scans were done in Roanoke, Va. She also argued that two of the state's expert witnessed did not examine the baby.

Flanagan-Morgan said that young Alexander's injuries were "horrible and unacceptable."

"But what is also horrible and unacceptable is convicting an innocent man for a crime he did not commit," she said.

There have been few jury trials in Mercer County since the COVID-19 pandemic started last year. During Coffey's trial, the jury sat spaced apart in the gallery normally used by the public. Everyone attending the trial was required to wear a mask at all times. Witnesses wore face shields while they testified so the jurors could hear them, and the witness stand — a table set between the prosecution and the defense — was sanitized after a witness finished testifying.

"Maybe this is the second trial this office has had since COVID started early last year," Cochran said. "My term started in January, so this is the first jury trial I've had since I've been prosecutor."

The possible sentence for child abuse resulting in serious injury was the only one available to the state.

"The law in this case provides a penalty of two to 10 years," Cochran stated. "And in my opinion, for what that's worth, I think that's pretty outrageous considering the horrific injuries that Michael Coffey caused this young baby."

Cochran said that he will ask the court to impose the maximum sentence.

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com