Mother free after admitting to poisoning children
By Robin Acton
Published: Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007
LEWISBURG, W.Va. -- For the last 25 years, Marybeth Davis denied poisoning her children.
She insisted something else, not caffeine diet pills, killed her 3-year-old daughter, Tegan Marie, on March, 11, 1982. She said something else, not an overdose of insulin, caused violent seizures that permanently disabled her son, 10-week-old Seth, on Sept. 30, 1981.
Davis, a registered nurse who grew up in Uniontown, Fayette County, denied it then and again in 1997, when prosecutors brought her to trial. Shackled and handcuffed, she maintained her innocence as Greenbrier County jurors convicted her of first-degree murder in Tegan's death and poisoning Seth, and sent her to prison for life. She never wavered through a decade of appeals that twice went to West Virginia's Supreme Court.
But in startling courtroom drama Oct. 5, Davis confessed. Four days later, after 3,640 days behind bars, she was free, leaving people to wonder.
What is the truth?
Route to freedom
Prosecutors said offering Davis a plea agreement that would free her after 10 years in prison was justice served. The local newspaper called it a mockery of the judicial system. Her longtime defense lawyer found it brilliant.
"If this is what you have to do in our system to get out of prison, then do it," said Paul Detch, the attorney who represented Davis until a few years ago and remains her friend. "She got out the only way she could. She had no choice but to mutter 'yes' at the end of a paragraph to get released."
Davis, 55, with white hair, pale skin and bifocals, isn't talking.
Her new attorney, Kanawha County Public Defender George Castelle, said she has not spoken publicly because one wrong word could send her back to jail under terms of an agreement offered by Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney R. Kevin Hanson.
Castelle reached an agreement with the prosecutor as they were facing a hearing Nov. 1 before Circuit Judge Joseph C. Pomponio Jr. on Castelle's motion for a new trial. Castelle alleged Detch was ineffective when he represented Davis in 1997.
Hanson, who took over the case at the beginning of his first term in 2001, said he felt there was "a significant chance" the judge would rule in Davis' favor. The court had just overturned a murder conviction in another of Detch's cases, and Hanson thought Castelle's petition carried some weight.
"There were several grounds that I thought at least held some merit," Hanson said.
He talked with former prosecutor Mark Burnette and the arresting officer, former state Trooper Michael Spradlin, before he agreed to let Davis enter guilty pleas to lesser charges of attempting to injure her children by poisoning in exchange for concurrent sentences of 3 to 18 years.
Hanson insisted that Davis had to admit her guilt and promise never to assert her innocence again. The agreement stipulated that if she or her attorney recanted the confession, she'd go back to prison under the original life sentence.
Davis admitted her guilt, and Pomponio overturned her convictions, vacated her life sentence and accepted her guilty pleas. Years of good conduct in the Pruntytown Correctional Center and Lakin Correctional Center resulted in her immediate release without parole or further court supervision.
"I'm sure some people will say she should never have been let out," Hanson conceded.
An Oct. 12 editorial in the Register-Herald, a newspaper printed in Beckley -- a small mining community about 50 miles from Lewisburg's tree-lined streets, historic inns and antique shops -- questioned Hanson's decision and the sincerity of Davis' admission.
It also asked, "Why not ... hand out get out of jail free cards to every lifer who admits guilt?"
Hanson reasoned that 25 years passed since the crimes that cost the poor, rural southern West Virginia county thousands of dollars to prosecute. He factored in that Davis served a decade in prison and is unlikely to offend again. He said he could not predict what another jury would do.
Burnette, a Harvard-educated lawyer who went on to serve a term in West Virginia's state Senate, agreed Hanson would have faced "a monumental task" to try the case again.
Several witnesses are dead; others who were sued civilly by Detch after the trial would most likely be reluctant to testify, Burnette said. Money would be a factor, as it was in 1997, when he had few resources to pay for hotel rooms, transportation and expenses for medical professionals and witnesses.
He said he believes the plea bargain is fair.
"What she pled to was exactly what I would have offered her 10 years ago, if her attorney had wanted a plea offer -- which he did not," said Burnette, who practices law in Florida. "I never believed she intended to kill her children ... but there is absolutely no doubt that she intended to poison them, and did so."
Both sides agree the Davis case was complicated and time-consuming.
Tegan had been dead for nearly 15 years -- buried with her dolls in a white $450 coffin on a hillside at Mt. St. Macrina Cemetery in Uniontown -- when Spradlin first heard her name while delving into cold cases.
He learned that the investigation had gone nowhere for years despite a medical examiner's 1982 report that the little girl was intentionally poisoned with diet pills, and physicians' reports that her brother had received a debilitating insulin injection.
Intrigued, he logged hundreds of hours interviewing witnesses, reading medical records and talking to the country's leading experts in pediatrics and endocrinology. When he went to a grand jury in 1996, he'd gathered enough evidence to win indictments against Davis on first-degree murder and attempt to injure by poisoning.
He insists Davis knew exactly what she was doing when she fed her little girl enough diet pills to shut down her organs. And as a nurse, she knew what effects the insulin would have had on her baby boy, he said. Seth was not prescribed insulin and did not have diabetes.
Physicians said Seth suffered brain damage that left him in a vegetative state that required constant care and institutionalization. His 2002 death at age 21 was labeled a homicide, records show.
"Somebody needs to speak for these children. This is the most callous and cold-blooded case I've seen in 35 years," Spradlin said. "She's a nurse, and she knew what she was doing."
At Davis' 1997 trial, witnesses supported the prosecution's theory that Davis exhibited signs of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychiatric condition in which a person harms someone to gain attention. Prosecutors suggested she poisoned her children because she craved attention from her husband, Dr. Gary Davis, who often was away from their Lewisburg home for medical training.
Detch argued Tegan died of Reyes syndrome -- a potentially fatal disease, sometimes linked to aspirin, that can shut down organs -- and that Seth suffered from a metabolic disorder. In post-conviction appeals, he claimed evidence and test results on the children were mistaken, misrepresented or deliberately withheld by the county's then medical examiner and other pediatric professionals, including several from Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Prosecutors found more physicians who supported the medical examiner's findings in Tegan's death and agreed with experts who treated Seth.
Detch said he uncovered new evidence to prove that Tegan had no more caffeine in her system than what is in a cup-and-a-half of coffee. He maintains that she died of Reyes syndrome and that her brother suffered from human growth hormone deficiency.
Spradlin isn't buying that argument.
"There's no evidence anywhere that would make me believe she didn't do it," countered Spradlin, who retired last year. "The leading people in the field of endocrinology in Pittsburgh are convinced it's accurate, and they don't have a dog in this fight. They're not hired guns, and they've stuck by their findings from day one."
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