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Second child's death linked to Munchausen case labeled homicide

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2002

A former Fayette County nurse's quest to overturn her conviction in the murder of her 3-year-old daughter and the attempted slaying of her infant son spurred the investigation that led authorities to label the recent death of the woman's comatose son a homicide.

Marybeth Davis, 49, formerly of Uniontown, was living in West Virginia with her medical student husband when her son became seriously ill and her daughter died unexpectedly within six months of one another 21 years ago. She contends she was a caring mother, a healer whose children were the victims of genetic, metabolic disorders and medical bungling.

Defense experts in her 1997 trial argued that the little girl died of Reyes Syndrome, while her brother suffered from human growth hormone deficiency.

But a West Virginia jury agreed with prosecutors who presented their own experts who claimed the little girl died from a caffeine overdose, while her brother was injured by a massive injection of insulin. Prosecutors also argued that Davis suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare psychiatric disorder that compels mothers to harm their children and seek unnecessary medical treatment to gain attention.

Ultimately Davis was convicted of murder in the March 11, 1982, death of her 3-year-old daughter, Tegan Marie, and attempted murder in what authorities characterized as the near-fatal poisoning six months earlier of her 10-week-old son, Seth Anthony.

Seth's death of pneumonia in a Latrobe hospital on Oct. 10, after 21 years in a vegetative state, triggered the most recent turn in this long, convoluted case when Westmoreland County Coroner Ken Bacha ruled the manner of death homicide.

Davis, who is seeking a new trial, is serving life without parole in a West Virginia prison.

Her attorney of two decades, Paul Detch, of Lewisburg, W.Va., had hoped to have Davis free on bond for Christmas. He said he still believes preliminary autopsy tests support his contentions that Seth Davis was the victim of human growth hormone deficiency and medical bungling rather than maternal malice. But Detch said publicity surrounding Bacha's ruling may have crushed any chance of that.

Seth weighed less than 50 pounds when he died and required nursing care even before pneumonia took a toll on his tiny body.

Bacha said local authorities weren't aware Seth, who was institutionalized in IHS Mountain View Nursing Care Center, east of Greensburg, was a figure in a protracted West Virginia criminal case until Detch called the coroner's office two days before the young man died in Latrobe Area Hospital on Oct. 10.

His call spurred the two-state investigation that culminated in Bacha's Dec. 9 homicide ruling.

Detch said he believed an autopsy would exonerate Marybeth Davis of any wrongdoing. He continues to maintain that has indeed happened, even though Bacha signed a certificate declaring the manner of Davis' death homicide caused by "bronchopnuemonia due to prolonged unconscious vegetative state due to excessive insulin injection."

"We were a little surprised to have it listed as homicide up in Pennsylvania. All the results I've seen are completely consistent with the innocence of Marybeth Davis," said Detch, who conceded he has yet to see the final report.

Whether the ruling will have any further impact is unclear. The Greenbrier County Prosecutor's Office, which handled the Davis case, did not return calls for comment Monday.

But Detch said he remains optimistic. He said scientific progress made since the death of Seth Davis supports arguments that he suffered from human growth hormone deficiency.

"In 1999 two new genetic tests became available, and we ran them and they confirmed diagnosis of our expert. There were four scientific tests run that showed he had human growth hormone deficiency," Detch said.

Bacha said he relied on recommendations from West Virginia Medical Examiner Dr. Jack Frost, who performed the autopsy for the cause of death.

Although Bacha typically contracts autopsies to forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, of Pittsburgh, he made an exception in Davis' case. "We thought it was in the best interest of everyone involved to have it transferred to West Virginia. This happened 21 years ago, in another state. We relied on them a lot," Bacha said.

Bacha's ruling is the most recent twist in a timeline that zigs and zags over two decades.

Although authorities in West Virginia initially investigated the possibility that the Davis children were the victims of foul play, they did not initially press charges. The file sat on a shelf for more than a decade until a state trooper reviewing old child abuse files stumbled upon it, revived the investigation and charged Davis.

In the years since Davis' conviction, a small but loyal following of health-care professionals has remained dedicated to overturning her convictions and has maintained a Web site - www.freemarybethdavis.homestead.com - that details the many inconsistencies Davis' supporters believe point to her innocence.

Erdley is a reporter for the Tribune-Review.

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