COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Ashley and Albert Debelbot were sitting in the same courtroom where, more than a decade earlier, they were convicted of murdering their newborn daughter. The district attorney walked over and apologized.
That’s when it sunk in for Ashley, 37, that they were free of the charges that lingered even after the Georgia Supreme Court overturned their convictions last year: “To have the DA walk over to me and reach out his hand and apologize, in that moment I was like, ‘This is happening.’”
The Debelbots brought baby McKenzy home two days after her birth in May 2008. Roughly 12 hours later, they’ve said, they awoke in the middle of the night, noticed a bump on her forehead and rushed back to the hospital. McKenzy died hours later. Her parents were arrested the next day.
The couple’s lawyers say the baby’s injuries occurred naturally and her parents are victims of a rush to judgment that cost them 12 years of their lives. The original prosecutor remains convinced of their guilt.
The case was overturned not because of new evidence but because of statements the prosecutor made at trial and defense attorneys’ failure to object. The new district attorney decided it wasn’t worth retrying.
The Debelbots met in South Korea while in the Army. Ashley, who’s from Mississippi, was a human resources sergeant. Albert, who’s from the Pacific island of Palau, was stationed there after serving in Iraq.
Ashley was already pregnant and planning to leave the military to be a full-time mom when they moved to Columbus in March 2008 for Albert’s posting at Fort Benning. They got a townhouse and prepared for the baby, nicknaming her Mac before she was even born.
McKenzy was born May 29 and died around 4 a.m. on June 1. An autopsy began the next morning, and the Debelbots were arrested that afternoon.
During their 2009 trial, a state medical examiner, Dr. Lora Darrisaw, testified McKenzy suffered “very severe head trauma,” causing skull fractures, brain swelling and bleeding. Based on the autopsy and absent any accident explanation, Darrisaw determined McKenzy’s death was non-accidental. The injuries were “most consistent with a crushing type of force.”
Asked if McKenzy’s injuries could have happened during birth, Darrisaw said that would be “absolutely ludicrous.”
Her testimony went unrebutted. Albert’s trial attorney didn’t call medical experts. A doctor Ashley’s attorney planned to call wasn’t available, and the judge declined a request to delay.
Ashley and Albert both testified that they had been eager first-time parents. Both said they didn’t hurt McKenzy.
Melvin Tarver, who’d been in a holding cell with Albert the first day of the trial, testified Albert said he’d gone out to get “dope” that night and when he returned Ashley said she’d spanked the baby and put her to bed. That could have helped Albert by placing blame on Ashley, but Albert’s lawyer worked to discredit Tarver through questioning. Both Debelbots testified they put McKenzy to bed together.
The jury deliberated about three hours before returning a guilty verdict. Judge Doug Pullen sentenced both Debelbots to life in prison.
The couple spent years seeking a new trial, arguing McKenzy’s injuries couldn’t have been caused by blunt force.
Medical examiners and other doctors often too quickly assume abuse when a baby dies, said Carrie Sperling, a post-conviction attorney for Albert.
“I think it would be shocking – especially to parents – to think that you could lose a child and the default diagnosis is if we can’t explain it, you killed them,” Sperling said.
The “lynchpin” to the state’s case was that McKenzy was healthy when she left the hospital, said A. James Anderson, a post-conviction attorney for Ashley.
“If you pull the lynchpin out, their case falls apart,” he said.
Dr. Daniel Sahlein provided alternate explanations during hearings on motions for a new trial: Blood clots formed in McKenzy’s brain before birth, blocking the circulation of blood and cerebrospinal fluid and causing bleeding. That created pressure that pushed against the developing skull, which was abnormally thin and improperly formed in places. The birthing process further damaged the skull and caused bleeding under the scalp.
McKenzy could have seemed fine in the hospital before taking a sudden turn at home, Dr. Peter Dehnel testified: “You can have really quite significant abnormalities of the brain and have a baby that looks really quite normal.”
But defense experts also testified there were warning signs in the hospital, including the fact that she ate far less than normal on her second day and that her head circumference increased at a rate about 10 times greater than normal.
The medical examiner described the right side of McKenzy’s brain as “soft and mushy.” But if she suffered a blunt force injury after leaving the hospital, Dehnel said he’d expect her brain to be swollen and firm. He also noted she had no bruises on her head.
Defense experts said it appeared parts of McKenzy’s brain and skull were missing. Darrisaw, the medical examiner, rejected that.
Two other doctors the state called said hospital records showed McKenzy was normal and healthy when discharged.
Dr. Joseph Zanga said the head exam was done appropriately and revealed nothing abnormal. The increased head circumference didn’t surprise him.
Trauma occurring before birth or during delivery “would not have allowed this child to appear completely normal for two or more days and then suddenly develop the signs and symptoms requiring the child to be brought to the emergency department,” Zanga testified.
Dr. Susan Palasis likened McKenzy’s injuries to those typical in car crashes. That McKenzy could have such extensive injuries and not show external signs or symptoms would be “very difficult to reconcile,” she said. She also disputed defense assertions that CT scans showed developmental abnormalities.
The original prosecutor, Sadhana Dailey, said Zanga and Palasis confirmed Darrisaw’s testimony that McKenzy suffered an inflicted skull fracture.
“The evidence supports a guilty verdict,” Dailey said in a recent interview.
After accepting the defense doctors as experts in their fields, Judge Arthur Smith ruled their theory “not credible.” He denied the request for a new trial.
But the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Smith’s ruling in February 2020, tossing the Debelbots’ convictions and saying they were entitled to a new trial.
During her closing argument, Dailey had told the jury reasonable doubt “does not mean to a mathematical certainty.”
“Which means we don’t have to prove that 90%. You don’t have to be 90% sure. You don’t have to be 80% sure. You don’t have to be 51% sure,” she said.
The high court said that was “an egregious misstatement of the law” and said the Debelbots didn’t get a fair trial because their lawyers didn’t object.
Because that was sufficient to overturn the verdict, the Supreme Court didn’t address the issue of medical evidence. The justices did say it was “a close question” whether the trial evidence was sufficient to sustain the convictions.
Mark Jones, who became district attorney in Columbus in January, said he reviewed the available evidence. With limited resources and a crush of recent murder cases, he decided against pursuing an old case with a high likelihood of acquittal.
Jones doesn’t know whether the Debelbots are innocent, he said, but he also considered that “they lost the prime years of their lives and they lost their baby and then they were incarcerated on top of that for a significant amount of time.”
At the hearing last month to dismiss the charges, Jones apologized that the Debelbots didn’t get a fair trial.
Albert said Jones’ apology was appropriate.
“Is it enough? I surely don’t think so,” he said.
Out on bond since July and now free of criminal charges, the Debelbots are struggling to start over and declined to talk about their relationship.
Ashley works in customer service for an insurance company but dreams of having her own food truck, and eventually a restaurant, after taking culinary classes in prison.
Due to complications with proving his legal residency, Albert, 35, hasn’t been able to get a photo ID, leaving him unable to travel or otherwise reestablish himself.
“This dismissing the case is only a minor part of my recovery process,” he said.
Both said their faith in the justice system is destroyed.
“I joined the Army because I believed in freedom and I believed in democracy,” Albert said. “Then I come home to experience injustice. It’s quite disappointing.”
They also said they never had a chance to grieve McKenzy’s death.
A teddy bear with a compartment in its back holds McKenzy’s ashes. Ashley hugs the bear now and cries, wondering what her daughter would have been like if she’d lived to turn 13 this month.
“I would have a teenager,” Ashley said, her eyes widening in disbelief and then turning wistful as she gazed at two framed photos of newborn McKenzy on the wall. “Who knows how many more children I would have had by now.”