The Georgia Supreme Court has rejected a Columbus judge’s ruling denying a new trial for Ashley and Albert Debelbot, convicted in 2009 of killing their newborn daughter McKenzy.
The high court’s decision does not overturn the Debelbots’ convictions, which the justices upheld.
They decided only that Muscogee Superior Court Judge Art Smith III’s Dec. 11, 2017, order denying the couple a new trial was so lacking in specificity that they did not have enough information to rule on the issues involved.
So the Supreme Court sent the case back to Smith to rewrite the ruling with a more detailed assessment of evidence presented during a years-long series of new-trial hearings in which the couple claimed their defense attorneys were ineffective during their 2009 trial, and the evidence against them was insufficient for a conviction.
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Wrote the Supreme Court: “We conclude that the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions of both Albert and Ashley. But while we are deeply troubled by at least two of the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, the nature of the order … prevents meaningful review of all of those claims.”
The couple married in 2007 while both were in the Army. The husband later was assigned to Fort Benning’s 4th Ranger Battalion School, and they moved to Columbus, where Ashley became pregnant. She gave birth to McKenzy at Martin Army Hospital at 4 p.m. May 29, 2008.
The baby was released the next afternoon, and the parents brought her home to their Buena Vista Road apartment.
Sometime after midnight June 1, 2008, they found a lump on the infant’s forehead, called the hospital and were told to bring the baby back. They returned to Martin Army about 1:30 a.m., and McKenzy was pronounced dead at 3:55 a.m.
Conducting an autopsy, a state medical examiner decided the child died of trauma resulting from a blow or series of blows to the head. A grand jury indicted the Debelbots for murder in June 2009. They were tried together from Oct. 26 to Oct. 29, 2009, found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
From 2014 to 2017, the couple sought a new trial in a series of hearings in which their lawyers for the appeal argued the couple’s trial attorneys were deficient for failing to call expert medical witnesses to counter the medical examiner’s testimony that the baby’s death resulted from inflicted trauma.
Among those involved in the defense effort were attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project and the Wisconsin Innocence Project, as well as the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit’s public defender office. They called experts to testify McKenzy’s injuries were the result of birth defects and a difficult delivery.
That testimony was to counter the findings of Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Lora Darrisaw, who testified the infant had a skull fracture to the left side of her head, extensive fractures to the right side also, and bleeding in her brain caused by a series of blows or by “a crushing type of injury.”
Four doctors called by the defense during new-trial hearings testified that McKenzy had a “vascular event” during her birth that caused the bleeding in her brain; that the right side of her skull was malformed and a piece missing; and that part of her brain was missing. The trauma of birth caused the fracture to the left side of her skull, they said.
Smith’s order denying the new-trial motion said the defense witnesses were not credible and their evidence was inadmissible, but it did not delve into detail regarding their testimony, the Georgia Supreme Court said.
“First, the court concluded in one sentence that all the Debelbots’ witnesses, expert and otherwise, were not credible,” the justices wrote. “And second, the court concluded that all of the Debelbots’ medical evidence was inadmissible…. The sweeping nature of these conclusions precludes our meaningful review at this time, requiring that we vacate and remand for more precision.”
Smith could not have found credibility lacking in all the defense testimony, as “many of the facts asserted by those witnesses were undisputed,” or matched the testimony of prosecution witnesses, or were “amply supported by the record,” the court wrote in its unanimous decision Wednesday.
Also Smith qualified the defense witnesses as experts their fields, but “did not explicitly reverse that determination” in finding they lacked credibility, the justices noted: “Because the order was not specific about what kinds of credibility the motion-for-new-trial court found lacking as to which pieces of critical testimony, we cannot determine what kind of deference we afford each of the credibility findings,” they wrote.
Without a more detailed analysis of that evidence, they can’t determine whether the Debelbots’ trial lawyers were ineffective, they added: “Whether either trial counsel acted reasonably under the circumstances of this case depends largely, if not entirely, on whether the expert evidence presented at the hearings was admissible and credible.”
The justices also criticized the trial prosecutor for telling jurors that finding someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt requires not even a 51-percent degree of certainty. That would be “less than even the preponderance of the evidence required to meet the burden of proof in a civil case,” the high court wrote. “That is obviously wrong.”
Still the court rejected defense arguments the circumstantial evidence was insufficient to convict the Debelbots because it did not prove they caused McKenzy’s injuries, only that those injuries occurred while the baby was in their care.
“The evidence in this case, although entirely circumstantial as to who committed the crimes, was legally sufficient to support the malice murder convictions,” the justices ruled.
District Attorney Julia Slater emphasized the convictions were upheld Wednesday in a written statement, which read in part: “The Georgia Supreme Court is requesting Judge Smith write a new order with more specificity about how he arrived at his decision to deny the motion for new trial. This is not a reversal of Judge Smith’s decision and the convictions of Albert and Ashley Debelbot stand.”