On the evening of February 21, 2002, Jeffrey Havard's live-in girlfriend went to a store to buy groceries, leaving her six-month-old infant, Chloe, in Jeff's care. Chloe spit up on her clothing and bedding. Jeff gave her a bath, and he accidentally dropped her. Her head struck the toilet.
Chloe did not seem to be seriously injured, so Jeff changed her into clean clothes, put her to bed, and said nothing about what had happened. When the baby’s mother first checked on her that evening, she seemed fine. A short time later, however, she discovered that Chloe did not appear to be breathing. She and Jeff took the baby to a hospital emergency room, where she died after attempts to resuscitate her failed.
There is no question that Jeff exercised bad judgment that night. He should have explained what had happened right away. But he did not want to admit he had dropped the baby, so he said nothing. It was a big mistake. Medical personnel did not know what had triggered the emergency, and they misunderstood what they saw. Serious brain damage often causes a patient's sphincter muscle to relax, so the anus becomes dilated. That was what happened to Chloe. The doctors and nurses treating the baby thought it meant she had been anally raped.
They were not the first medical professionals to misread this condition. Similar allegations have arisen in enough cases to warrant a systematic study of accidental deaths involving children. Researchers found that anal dilation in such cases is a common phenomenon. It is not an indicator of sexual abuse.
The hospital staff who treated Chloe, and the police who were called in to investigate, did not know this. Jeff was arrested and held in custody. Two days later, when he finally told police what had happened, the late disclosure only served to damage his credibility. By then, authorities believed he had raped and killed an infant.
This was the story that circulated through the community as well. Rumors took on a life of their own, blurring the line between fact and imagination. By the time Jeff was tried, in December 2002, witnesses who had seen the baby at the hospital were recalling injuries that are not shown in photos or recorded in the autopsy report. Defense attorneys did little to challenge these witnesses or explain the medical evidence, which they did not understand themselves. Jeff was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in a proceeding that lasted less than two days.
The jury may have reached the only decision they could, because the trial did not clarify the facts of the medical report or what these facts really mean. Two forensic pathologists examined the medical report after the trial, and both concluded that Chloe’s death was accidental. Her autopsy revealed none of the injuries that would surely be present had she been sexually assaulted. Even the prosecution’s medical expert later admitted the evidence does not support a claim of sexual assault. A reasonable jury, presented with the expert opinion that has been gathered since the trial, would have reached a different verdict.
Jeffrey Havard is the first to admit he was guilty of bad judgment on the night Chloe died. He was 22 years old, and he was scared. But he did not commit murder in the course of a sexual assault. He has spent more than a decade on death row, awaiting execution for a crime that never took place.
Time is running out for Jeff Havard, who is sitting on death row convicted of murder. But now, the man who helped put him there is under fire. "I'm not one to usually use the language, but it's pure hell knowing that unless something comes about, that he could by laying there, you know, and put to death for something that didn't happen," said his Havard's mother, Cheryl Havard Harrell.