Fannin found guilty
HUNTINGTON -- The prosecution asked for a guilty verdict, and jurors delivered within about 90 minutes Friday by convicting Michael Fannin of shaking to death infant Emma Beatty in spring 2011.
The nine-man, three-woman jury found Fannin guilty of child abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian causing death. He was the 4-month-old's baby sitter when she suffered the fatal injuries April 29, 2011. She died days later at Cabell Huntington Hospital.
Cabell Judge Paul T. Farrell immediately sentenced Fannin to the maximum sentence, 40 years in prison.
The verdict's announcement came with some confusion, as the jury foreman initially signed the wrong verdict, mistakenly acquitting Fannin. It brought a look of surprise from Fannin and scared the infant's mother, Melissa Hershberger, as Farrell read the unintended verdict. The foreman immediately alerted the court to his mistake, and Farrell sent jurors back into their room. They re-emerged moments later with a corrected form announcing Fannin's guilt.
The head of Fannin's mother dropped onto her husband's shoulder, as Hershberger wept and grasped the hands of her husband and father. Hershberger, still grieving the loss, remained outside of the courtroom all week except to testify and hear the verdict.
"It's relief more than anything," she said. "It's been a long time coming. I was beginning to wonder (if the day would come)."
Beatty died May 2, 2011, three days after an incident occurred at Fannin's residence in Marcum Terrace in Huntington. Hershberger had testified she met Fannin online during maternity leave, developed a friendship and sought his occasional help in caring for the child while she worked.
Assistant prosecutor Peggy Brown expressed gratitude with the verdict and called the punishment appropriate. In her closing argument, Brown described the incident with graphic and violent language. She urged jurors to speak for Beatty, whose death was caused by the "bashing (of her) brain around inside of her skull."
The prosecutor also detailed the brevity of Beatty's life, as she did in her opening statement, measuring it at 124 days; four months, three days; 17 weeks; or one-third of a year.
"It was not enough," she argued. "Emma deserved better ... You must tell the defendant with your verdict that she deserved to live."
Fannin, 43, declined comment as he was escorted from the courtroom by West Virginia State Police Trooper W.G. Hash, the case's lead investigator. The defendant simply handed his wallet to a bailiff, who in turn gave it to Fannin's parents. They also declined comment.
Defense attorney Michael J. Curtis, who did not return a call seeking comment, argued throughout the week a sound at Fannin's door startled the infant, causing her body to suddenly slip from the baby sitter's arms and fall four to five feet to the concrete floor. Brown relied upon testimony from the infant's doctors saying such an explanation defied widely accepted medical research.
"Tell the defendant that he killed Emma," Brown said in closing. "He didn't accidentally drop Emma. He violently shook her, and he flung her into some hard object, some object that is imprinted in her skull ... Please tell the defendant -- you can't kill babies and walk away."
Curtis insisted prosecutors relied on a confused neighbor's timeline and the tunnel vision of its lead investigator and three doctors, whom he described as advocates for shaken baby syndrome as opposed to unbiased, objective physicians.
"They can't see the trees for the forest, because they're so myopic and narrowly focused on shaken baby," he said.
The defense criticized the physicians, arguing they took one look at a CT scan and made a diagnosis without reviewing other explanations. Brown responded, telling jurors that scan revealed three unique aspects of brain injuries that, when spotted together, are widely accepted as shaken baby syndrome.
The prosecutor took direct aim at the defense's case in closing arguments, which at points resembled a debate on shaken baby syndrome as much as the case at hand. Brown once asked jurors if an infant such as Beatty could speak, would the defense expert believe the child.
"We all know better than to shake babies, and yet hundreds of caregivers experiment on their own children under the age of 2, most of them under the age of 1," she said. "Who speaks for them? In this case, Emma's skull speaks for her."
Brown was aided in the case by fellow assistant prosecutor Melia Adkins. She and Hash both expressed relief and satisfaction with Friday's verdict.
Both sides will return to court in September. That's when Farrell will consider a post-sentence investigation and hear arguments for or against the 40-year sentence.
Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.
The Herald-Dispatch welcomes your comments on this article, but please be civil. Avoid profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, accusations of criminal activity, name-calling or insults to the other posters. Herald-dispatch.com does not control or monitor comments as they are posted, but if you find a comment offensive or uncivil, hover your mouse over the comment and click the X that appears in the upper right of the comment. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal Facebook page, uncheck the box below the comment.