The former Fort Benning soldier convicted with his wife of killing their newborn in 2008 took the witness stand Friday as the couple sought a new trial before Muscogee Superior Court Judge Art Smith III.
Albert and Ashley Debelbot contend their daughter McKenzy died not from abuse but from congenital abnormalities in her skull and brain development, and from complications related to her problematic delivery.
Albert Debelbot told the court what he knew of his defense attorney’s plans for the October 2009 murder trial in which he and his wife were accused of giving their days-old daughter a fatal head injury.
The husband’s attorney was Bill Mason, who died of liver cancer last August. Mason’s strategy was to present the father’s “good character,” emphasizing the soldier’s military service in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and “the medals that I won,” Albert Debelbot said.
But the husband soon got the impression Mason had another tactic in mind: Shifting blame to the child’s mother. “He never told me about that,” said Albert Debelbot, who added he was “shocked” when Mason implied that.
This strategy was confirmed by the affidavit of a University of Wisconsin law student who in 2013 was working with the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which is assisting the Debelbots because of its experience in cases alleging abusive head trauma in children.
According to the student, Mason in a phone call told her he accepted a state medical examiner’s contention the death was a homicide.
The affidavit said Mason “felt it was a shame that Albert was in prison, and that he thought Albert was innocent, just that he was covering for his wife. Mason indicated that at trial he had hoped Albert would say Ashley did it ... but it was a ‘cultural thing’ for not blaming his wife during his testimony.”
Representing Ashley Debelbot at the trial was William “Sandy” Callahan, who testified Friday that he was hampered in his defense by being rushed into trial with no time to secure an expert to refute the state medical examiner’s conclusions.
Callahan, who served as a judge advocate general in both the Navy and Army reserves, said he was on reserve duty when informed the Debelbots’ trial would begin in a week, even though he’d filed a leave of absence for the time he’d be away.
He learned Mason had filed a speedy trial demand for Albert Debelbot. Callahan said he tried to get a delay, but when the case was called on then-Judge Doug Pullen’s calendar on Oct. 2, 2009, the judge told him, “We’re going to try this case. I don’t care where you decide to go.” The trial was set to start the following Oct. 26.
Callahan had planned to call an expert witness from Minnesota, Dr. John Plunkett, to counter the testimony of Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Dr. Lora Darrisaw, who conducted Mckenzy’s autopsy and concluded the death was a homicide.
But Plunkett was not available until November 2009, Callahan said, so he was compelled to go to trial without a defense expert.Asked why he didn’t find a replacement, Callahan said, “I just didn’t have time.”
He said also that Mason declined to pool their resources to pay Plunkett.
According to the Wisconsin law student’s affidavit, Mason told her that, too:
“I specifically asked him if he remembered attorney Callahan’s attempt to bring in Dr. Plunkett. He did remember, though he felt that bringing in some expert from Minnesota was not going to hold any weight with the jury in Columbus.”
Having no witness to refute Darrisaw’s testimony crippled the defense, Callahan said: “Without that, I had nothing.”
He said he took responsibility for the child’s body, arranging for an airport mortuary service to store it from June 2008 until it could be cremated and sent in February 2009 to Mississippi, where Ashley Debelbot is from. He paid the cost out of his legal fees, he said.
Asked if he’d encountered similar obstacles in other criminal cases, Callahan said: “I’ve never had an experience like this happen to me in all my years of practice."
The Debelbot’s new trial hearing did not finish Friday. Prosecutors have yet to present their side; the defense used up all the time set aside for this court session.
Judge Smith set a followup hearing for Oct. 15-16.
Court records show the Debelbots’ child was born at 4 p.m. May 29, 2008, at Benning’s Martin Army Community Hospital, and discharged at 1 p.m. May 31, 2008.
About 1:30 a.m. the next day, the parents 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.
Darrisaw told police the child’s death was the result of “inflicted, nonaccidental trauma” consistent with her having been slammed against a wall or stomped on the head, though the Debelbots denied that.
When arrested in 2008, Albert Debelbot was a 22-year-old specialist with Fort Benning’s Ranger Training Brigade, according to Ledger-Enquirer archives.