A legal battle nearly a decade old finally is coming to a head as a Muscogee County Superior Court judge vowed Thursday to rule before year’s end on whether Ashley and Albert Debelbot will get a new trial in the 2008 death of their infant daughter.
The two were convicted of murder in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison before defense attorneys aided by the Wisconsin Innocence Project mounted an extensive appeal effort claiming the Debelbots would not have been found guilty had their attorneys summoned medical experts to counter prosecution witnesses.
Since 2015, Judge Arthur Smith III has heard hours of testimony from medical experts on either side.
Doctors for the prosecution said the child was born healthy May 29, 2008, at Fort Benning’s Martin Army Hospital and sustained no head trauma there despite a difficult delivery, so her parents must have caused the brain damage that killed her.
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Experts for the defense testified McKenzy was born with brain abnormalities and internal bleeding that led to her death, and her parents were blameless.
Smith heard final arguments from both sides Thursday, and afterward said he would rule on the new-trial motion within 90 days.
According to court records and previous Ledger-Enquirer reports, McKenzy was discharged from Martin Army at 1 p.m. May 31, 2008, and the Debelbots sometime after midnight awoke in their Buena Vista Road apartment to find the infant had a lump on her head. They rushed her back to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 3:55 a.m.
Physicians examining the child then concluded she died from abusive head trauma. A medical examiner described it as “inflicted, non-accidental trauma” consistent with her having been slammed against a wall or stomped on the head.
Debelbot at the time was a 22-year-old specialist with Benning’s Ranger Training Brigade. He and his wife were convicted and sentenced to life in prison on Oct. 29, 2009.
A key issue aside from the child’s cause of death is whether the Debelbots had effective defense counsel. Ashley Debelbot was represented by William “Sandy” Callahan, who during one new-trial hearing two years ago testified he was compelled to go to trial before he was ready and unable to get a medical expert in time.
Callahan in 2009 was a judge advocate general serving in the reserves, and had been called to duty before he learned the trial would start on Oct. 26, 2009. The medical expert he wanted to come here from Minnesota was not available until the following November, and he never had time to find a replacement, he said.
Albert Debelbot’s attorney was Bill Mason, who since has died. Mason chose not to call a defense expert to counter the medical examiner’s testimony, and instead tried to shift the blame from his client to Ashley Debelbot.