In a Tyler County courtroom on Friday, Suzanna Harwell told a judge she had no intention of hurting her 6-month-old son in 2009 when she left him alone, drinking from his bottle - an incident that ultimately led to his death.
Heather Nolan : July 12, 2011
Harwell was home alone with Brandel on Oct. 1, 2009. She claims she propped the baby up on the sofa, placed a pillow on his chest, gave him a bottle and left the room.
When she came back a few minutes later, it appeared Brandel had thrown up. After a few minutes she noticed he wasn't breathing well and he was possibly unconscious.
He died four days later.
Tyler County sheriff's deputies arrested Harwell in March 2010 and charged the 25-year-old mother with capital murder. Her bond was set at $1 million.
An autopsy ruled Brandel's death a homicide and contended he died from blunt force head trauma. The state alleged the trauma resulted from Harwell shaking the infant, Harwell's attorney, Ryan Gertz, said.
Prosecutors studied the evidence in the case, medical experts wrote letters disputing the autopsy findings and her charge eventually was downgraded to criminally negligent homicide, a state jail felony. Harwell pleaded guilty to the charge Friday and was sentenced to two years in jail. She will be released early next year.
Her case is an example of what has become a controversial diagnosis known as shaken baby syndrome. In recent years, new evidence has surfaced that shaken baby syndrome is sometimes wrongly diagnosed, and some people have had convictions reversed because of it.
NPR, PBS Frontline and ProPublica and studied nearly two dozen cases in the U.S. and Canada where people were convicted of killing children but later acquitted or had the charges dropped.
Not enough evidence
After her arrest, a Tyler County grand jury indicted Harwell on the capital murder charge and prosecutors said that although she could get the death penalty, they wouldn't pursue that option.
Tyler County Assistant District Attorney Daniel Hunt said after reviewing the case, prosecutors decided she should be re-indicted on an injury to a child charge. After further review, prosecutors decided to again re-indict Harwell on criminally negligent homicide, Hunt said.
The capital murder and injury to a child charges were dropped Friday, Gertz said.
The only reason prosecutors agreed to lower Harwell's charge is because they were not sure they had enough evidence to convince a jury to convict her, Hunt said.
They did not want to take the chance of bringing the case to trial and possibly have her walk away if jurors did not agree with their presentation, he said. He cited the jurors' decision in last week's Casey Anthony trial as an example of how a jury can sometimes surprise prosecutors.
"I personally am firmly convinced this baby was murdered," he said. "Was I going to be able to convince 12 jurors of that? I didn't think so."