Washington Post

4 Babies' Deaths Are Ruled Homicides
District's Examiner Reviewed Old Cases

By Nancy Lewis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A01

The D.C. medical examiner has ruled that four young children who died between 1994 and 1996 were homicide victims and did not die from undetermined causes as stated on their original death certificates.

The children were shaken, beaten or smothered, and two also showed signs of repeated child abuse, said Jonathan L. Arden, whose office reinvestigated the deaths after inquiries from The Washington Post in connection with stories it ran in September about the number of child abuse and neglect deaths that go undetected in the metropolitan area.

The original findings in the four cases were made by predecessors of Arden, who became medical examiner in April. However, in an interview Tuesday, Arden said that each of the deaths "cried out for a ruling of homicide" and that there was enough medical and law enforcement information in the files on the deaths to have ruled them homicides earlier.

"These cases define the very nature of what we do: investigate and certify sudden and unexpected deaths," Arden said.

Arden cautioned that his new rulings may not result in charges or prosecutions. He called the cases "the ultimate examples of somebody being responsible for a child's death but who, because of medical mishandling, may never be brought to justice."

He said that in most of the cases, previous medical examiners said missing or incomplete results of specialized tests prevented them from making a determination about how the children died. But, Arden said, the examiners failed to "make comprehensive and rational judgments" based on the "abundance of evidence" otherwise available about the children. Arden's new investigations consisted solely of reviewing the existing records.

Although all of the children were pronounced dead at District hospitals, one child was injured in Maryland, one suffered his fatal injuries in Germany and two were fatally injured in the District. Arden notified law enforcement officials involved in each case late Tuesday of his rulings.

The children whose deaths now have been declared homicides are:

Ebony Brown, 4 months old, who died Nov. 12, 1994, at her home in the 1100 block of Penn Street NE. Arden ruled that she died of child abuse syndrome. An autopsy found numerous healed and healing fractures, including fractured ribs and a broken arm.

She weighed just seven pounds. In two months, she had gained less than a half pound.

Keyona A. DeBrew, 6 weeks old, who died Feb. 11, 1996, at her home in Anacostia. Arden ruled that she was smothered. According to police reports at the time, the infant was found in her mother's bed, pressed face down by the leg of an adult male who also had slept there.

Nicole Des Ware, 17 months old, of Clinton, who died in November 1995. Arden ruled that she died of child abuse syndrome with blunt-force injuries of an undetermined manner. She allegedly had tumbled down steps, but Arden ruled that the child could not have sustained the fatal injuries in that manner, and he said a fall also would not explain numerous old injuries.

Camoron Waller, a 1-year-old who died in March 1996 of injuries he sustained in Germany, where his family was stationed in the U.S. Army. Arden called the case "as obvious a shaken baby case as ever you will find." The child's death originally was classified as being from anoxic encephalopathy, or brain injury from lack of oxygen, which Arden said was a symptom, but not a cause of death.

He defined child abuse syndrome as a refinement of the older term, battered child syndrome, that has been broadened to include any evidence of multiple episodes of inflicted trauma. "These children aren't just battered; they are bitten, scalded, neglected, smothered and beaten," Arden said.

In its series, The Post detailed systemic flaws that allow many children's horrible deaths -- from scaldings to starvations to suffocations -- to pass undetected and unpunished. The killings are overlooked because many doctors and police are not trained in spotting telltale signs of childhood injuries, because state and local governments lack agencies that aggressively investigate the deaths and because many victims' relatives and later, juries, find it impossible to believe an adult would kill a child.

As part of its report, The Post reviewed the causes of death for 4,598 children younger than 5 who died in the District, Maryland and Virginia between 1992 and 1995.

Arden said yesterday that he is continuing to review a fifth case that originally was ruled a death from sudden infant death syndrome but also "cries out as a homicide." That case involves Chaulette Willis, a 4-month-old who died in August 1992 after being found by paramedics called to a crack house in Southeast Washington.

Paramedics and police said later that the baby may have been dead as long as 12 hours. Her diaper appeared not to have been changed for days; the skin beneath it was raw, ulcerated, rotting. Doctors found two pounds of feces in the diaper of the 10-pound baby.

Arden said he is trying to locate more records related to the girl's death, describing as "perfunctory" the medical and law enforcement records in her file. He said the information on file is insufficient to support any conclusion about her cause of death, including the original ruling of SIDS.

When Arden took the D.C. post, he said he would not attempt to reinvestigate deaths that occurred before he was named medical examiner, despite the high number on the books for which no cause had ever been determined. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the causes of death of 86 District children who died between 1992 and 1995 were ruled undetermined, and hundreds of adult deaths were attributed to undetermined causes.

But after learning from The Post that nearly 100 child deaths from 1995 and 1996 still were listed in D.C. police homicide records as having "undetermined" causes, he reviewed the 100 cases.

Most, he found, had been assigned specific causes of death -- despite what appeared in police records -- and information for more than a dozen of the cases listed by police could not be located, Arden said.

Of the remaining cases, Arden singled out seven for detailed investigations. They were the Waller, DeBrew and Ware cases, now ruled as homicides; three that he has ruled deaths from natural causes; and one, a stillborn, that he said should have been ruled a fetal death because causes of death are issued only for live births.

Arden reviewed the death of Ebony Brown at the request of The Post after its reporting.

Arden said yesterday that for the final three months of last year, only one death in the District was certified as being from undetermined causes.

In another child case, Arden confirmed that he has changed the cause of death for 23-month-old Devonta Young, of Anacostia, from blunt-force trauma to child abuse syndrome with malnutrition due to nutritional neglect and multiple recent and old blunt injuries. Because Arden ruled that malnutrition, not blunt-force injuries, was the primary contributing cause of Devonta's death, the U.S. attorney's office last fall dropped manslaughter charges against the boy's mother, Rose Young, who faced a trial in her son's Aug. 20, 1996, death.

Young was tried in 1997 in Devonta's death. She was acquitted of cruelty for failing to feed the child. She also was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder, but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on a manslaughter charge.

A forensic pediatrician hired to assist the U.S. attorney's office also had identified starvation as a possible cause of death.

According to testimony at Young's trial, Devonta weighed 20 pounds when he died, exactly the same weight as a year earlier. His ribs protruded, and his weight and height weren't in the pediatric range acceptable for his age.

But the D.C. medical examiner at the time, Humphrey D. Germaniuk, testified repeatedly and emphatically that Devonta died of blunt-force trauma injuries.

Germaniuk, now the coroner in Trumbull County, Ohio, did not return telephone calls yesterday seeking comment.

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