BOISE – A federal court judge has ordered the state of Idaho to release or re-try a man convicted of murder in a shaken baby case more than two decades ago.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled Wednesday that Idaho would have 120 days to either release Edward Stevens or give him a new trial, in part because prosecutors in Ada County earlier failed to disclose some favorable evidence to Stevens’ defense attorney.
The judge also found that investigators failed to maintain the proper chain of custody for some of the evidence. Chain of custody rules are intended to ensure that evidence for criminal cases isn’t tampered with.
The judge said the prosecutor should have discovered and disclosed that some of the key evidence used to support the shaken-baby theory came from tissue samples that may have been damaged by the embalming process.
Prosecutors said Stevens shook the child and hit the child’s head against a bathtub, causing a fatal injury. But Stevens has maintained the child was injured during an accidental fall down stairs.
According to the court documents, Stevens was caring for his girlfriend’s 11-month-old son on Dec. 27, 1996, when the child sustained a serious head injury and died the next day at a hospital.
Stevens told investigators that he was taking a nap and awoke to a thump, finding that the child had fallen down the stairs. He said he tried to rouse the child and administered CPR before calling 911 about five minutes later.
Prosecutors said they believed Stevens had been abusing the child for about six months and that he shook the child and slammed the baby’s head against the bathtub. They said he then waited more than a half-hour before calling 911.
Experts and witnesses gave different opinions at Stevens’ trial, some saying the child’s body showed clear signs of abuse and shaking while others said earlier bruises were the kind that many newly mobile children get and that the injuries could have been caused by a fall.
The most crucial scientific evidence came from an eye doctor who testified about examining the child’s eyes several months after his death.
That doctor stated that internal bleeding and a type of tissue damage known as “perimacular folds” was present in the eyes, indicating the child had been badly shaken.
But the prosecutors did not disclose that the eyes weren’t removed from the remains during the autopsy, and instead were collected only after the child’s remains had been embalmed.
At his trial, Stevens was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He appealed the case to the Idaho Court of Appeals, but lost – prompting him to file the appeal in Idaho’s U.S. District Court in 2014.
In his ruling, the U.S. District Court magistrate judge agreed that Stevens’ defense attorneys could have used that information to show that the embalming process caused the damage to the eyes.
“It is beyond argument that the prosecutor was required to discover and disclose material impeachment evidence – that C.W.’s (the child’s) eyes may have been removed after the body was released to the funeral home and embalmed. That did not happen,” Bush wrote.
Stevens doesn’t have to prove that the evidence about the eyes would have convinced the jury to acquit him, only that there was a reasonable probability of a different result, the judge said.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office, which represented the state on the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.