After multiple court hearings over two decades of appeals, a Columbus mother and father convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in their infant daughter’s death have been granted a new trial.
In a unanimous ruling announced Friday, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Ashley and Albert Debelbot, deciding they were denied their Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during their joint trial in October 2009.
A jury convicted the couple in the death of their daughter McKenzy, who was born May 29, 2008, at Fort Benning’s Martin Army Hospital and released the next afternoon.
After the Debelbots brought her home to their apartment on Buena Vista Road, they found a lump on her forehead early on June 1, and took her back to Martin Army. She was pronounced dead at 3:55 a.m.
The medical examiner conducting the autopsy said it showed McKenzy died of trauma resulting from a blow or series of blows to the head. Because the child was thought to be healthy when she left the hospital, and was solely in her parents care afterward, both were charged with murder, and convicted after they were tried together from Oct. 26 to Oct. 29, 2009.
Defense attorneys since have argued McKenzy was born with a brain deformation, and her fatal injuries resulted from a “vascular event” that occurred during her birth.
From 2014 to 2017, the Debelbots sought a new trial in a series of hearings in which their lawyers argued the couple’s 2009 trial attorneys were deficient in failing to call expert medical witnesses to counter the medical examiner’s testimony.
Among those involved in the defense were the Georgia Innocence Project, the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit’s public defender office. They called experts to testify McKenzy’s injuries resulted from birth defects and a difficult delivery.
Though they delved into complicated medical issues that provoked arguments over the computer system used for McKenzy’s brain scans and whether that software was approved by the FDA and reliable enough to be admitted in court, the Supreme Court justices based their decision on just a few key words the prosecutor said in her closing argument.
In explaining the concept of “reasonable doubt,” which in a juror’s mind would justify a vote to acquit, Assistant District Attorney Sadhana Dailey said it “does not mean beyond all doubt,” and added:
“It does not mean to a mathematical certainty. Which means we don’t have to prove that 90 percent. You don’t have to be 90 percent sure. You don’t have to be 80 percent sure. You don’t have to be 51 percent sure.”
The Debelbots’ defense attorneys, Bill Mason for the husband and William “Sandy” Callahan for the wife, did not object, and the jury was left with that understanding of the required standard of proof.
That alone was enough to overturn their convictions, the court ruled, so addressing the defense’s failure to call experts to counter the medical examiner’s unrebutted testimony was unnecessary.
“The Debelbots have shown a reasonable probability that, but for the failure of their lawyers to object during closing argument to the gross misstatement of the law by the prosecuting attorney, the outcome of their trial would have been different. Because the Debelbots were denied the effective assistance of counsel at trial, we reverse.”
In a footnote, the court delved further into setting a percentage for juror certainty, writing:
“Although our opinion focuses on the prosecuting attorney’s misstatement that proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not require evidence establishing even a 51 percent certainty of guilt, we also disapprove the statements that a jury need not be 90 percent or 80 percent certain of guilt to find beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty. We admonish lawyers not to confuse jurors by attempting to quantify a standard of proof that is not susceptible to quantification.”
Though the ruling overturns Muscogee Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith III’s decision to deny the Debelbots a new trial, it does not free them from prison.
The next step is for the Supreme Court to send the case back to Muscogee County Superior Court. “The plan at this point is to try it again,” District Attorney Julia Slater said Friday.
Now 34, Albert Omenged Debelbot remains in the Walker State Prison in Rock Springs. He began serving his sentence on Dec. 21, 2009, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Ashley Deone Debelbot, now 35, is in the Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville. She started serving her sentence on Dec. 16, 2009.