Monday, April 22, 2024

3 Carolina Beach residents held accountable for 2020 death of month-old infant

Attorneys James Rutherford, Woody White and Bruce Mason defended Joel, Sylvia and Roby Garner, who were ultimately found guilty of negligent child abuse for the death of a one-month-old. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — No one argued in the courtroom that the death of a one-month-old wasn’t tragic, but who should take the blame for the fatality was a contentious topic debated by four attorneys over the course of a week.

Ultimately, the jury decided Wednesday the baby’s father, Joel Garner, and grandparents Sylvia and Roby Garner were guilty of negligent child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury; Sylvia was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. They originally pleaded not guilty to their charges and chose not to testify during the trial, which started Oct. 23. The three were tried together because the charges were similar and related to the same incident that took place almost four years ago.

Joel was sentenced Wednesday to 26 to 44 months in prison, while Sylvia and Roby were both sentenced to 12 months of supervised probation and not serve jailtime.

Their respective attorneys made a final attempt to have charges dismissed Tuesday, but Judge Frank Jones denied their motions.

“With respect to each of the three defendants, there is substantial evidence each is a perpetrator of the charges,” Jones said.

Adalynn Garner, an infant born in December 2019, was killed on Jan. 20, 2020, after her mother, 35-year-old Amy Miles, suffocated her after falling into a drug-induced sleep. Miles, along with the Garners, were charged and indicted in November 2020 with negligent child abuse causing serious bodily harm or injury.

Sylvia was also charged with involuntary manslaughter. As Adalynn’s grandmother, she was named main supervisor per a temporary safety provider agreement with the New Hanover County Department of Social Services; the parents were deemed unfit to be alone with the baby due to drug use.

Miles, who was not included in the trial against the other three defendants, faced second-degree murder. She made a deal with the district attorney’s office to reduce her charges to involuntary manslaughter and negligent child abuse in exchange for testifying against the Garners.

She pleaded guilty to her charges earlier this year, but she has not yet been sentenced; the district attorney’s office said a date has not been set.

Both Miles and Joel have a history of substance use. Instead of putting Adalynn in foster care, which is what happened to Miles’ previous four children, DSS agreed to a different arrangement.

The two grandparents signed a safety plan on Dec. 31, 2019, stating they would not leave Adalynn unsupervised or alone with her parents at any time, and the baby would sleep in the grandparents’ bedroom under their watch. Sylvia and Roby Garner moved into Joel and Miles’ 1,500-square foot double-wide mobile home at 707 Ocean Blvd. in Carolina Beach; the Garners own the property, along with another house on the same road. 

Assistant district attorney Lance Oehrlein’s main argument for prosecuting the Garners criminally was not following the safety plan. He said the baby died due to being alone with the mother when she shouldn’t have been.

When Adalynn was born, she spent two weeks in the NICU because of Miles’ drug-abuse during pregnancy. DSS stepped in before the baby and Miles were discharged.

Sylvia and Roby already had legal custody of Miles’ and Joel’s first child, who is now 6 years old. After he was born in 2016 and drugs were found in Miles’ system, the newborn was placed in temporary foster care for a week while the Garners’ backgrounds were checked. Sylvia and Roby were granted custody for one year to allow Miles to prove she was a fit mother. Yet after 12 months, a judge ordered the grandparents full custody as the baby’s legal guardians.

Sylvia’s attorney, Woody White, argued DSS failed to do its job and should have followed this same protocol for Adalynn.

Oehrlein replayed in court Joel’s interview with law enforcement from 2020 recalling the incident. Joel said he woke up around 6:17 a.m. when his alarm went off and Adalynn was not in her bassinet. Instead, he saw her feet sticking out from underneath Miles, who was asleep in the bed atop the baby.

“I pushed [Amy] to the floor and saw [Adalynn] was dead,” he said through sobs on the recording. 

He added the baby was very hot to the touch and sweating. 

“I knew she was dead before I even rolled Amy over. I saw her little limbs…” Joel described.

The North Carolina Medical Examiner ruled the one-month old’s death a suffocation due to “overlay by the mother.” Dr. Anuradha Arcot testified in court Monday; she performed the autopsy and there were no other abnormalities. Arcot confirmed Adalynn died because her mouth and nose were obstructed and she couldn’t breath.

The examiner added she excludes every other possibility before determining asphyxiation as the cause. She also testified she has no way to know if it was intentional or not.

Oehrlein said, regardless of intent, the grandparents and father should still be held responsible since they made no effort to follow the safety plan. 

“I can’t think of a more grossly negligent act than abandoning a three-to-four-week old,” he said. “It was not a momentary lapse; it was an intentional attempt to disregard the safety plan.”

Oehrlein also called out the location of the bassinet in the parents’ bedroom. He said it proved Adalynn slept with Joel and Miles every night, though she was supposed to be monitored by the grandparents at all times.

He said Sylvia and Roby were well aware of Miles’ and Joel’s addiction issues, having had to sit through previous legal hearings when they got custody of the first baby. 

Evidence showed multiple needles were found in the house by police, and text messages between Joel and Miles indicated they were both abusing prescription drugs. 

Oehrlein alleged Joel had been misusing his prescriptions the night of the baby’s death, causing him to pass out and fail to protect the child. 

Joel’s attorney, James Rutherford, informed the jury Tuesday his client was asleep and didn’t wake up when Miles and the infant were in bed because he was sick with a fever — not inebriated by drugs.

SBI forensic scientist Jamie Weathers testified Monday that she analyzed a white pill found at the crime scene and a syringe. She found they contained buprenorphine — an opioid medication used to treat opioid use disorder. Weathers also analyzed a portion of a yellow pill, which was confirmed to be Alprazolam, a generic for Xanax.

The syringe was tested by forensic scientist Sara Ellis, who testified Monday that Miles’ DNA matched the sequence found on the object.

Though on the night in question, there was no Xanax found in Miles’ body, Rutherford told the jury. She had ingested marijuana and klonopin.

Text messages dated Jan. 9, 2020, entered into evidence during trial revealed Miles asking Joel: “Did Scott bring Xanax?” to which Joel replied he had already given her some. Oehrlein argued that Joel enabling Miles’ drug use also rendered him negligent.

Another message from Joel to an unidentified friend indicated a request for “uppers.”

Rutherford said the text message from Jan. 9 doesn’t directly relate to the Jan. 20 incident. On the day Adalynn died, Joel’s medication was in a locked box. He also said prescription drugs showed up in his blood because he took a seizure medication — allegedly in front of law enforcement — prior to his blood draw.

Joel’s lawyer then reminded the jury it needed to, beyond a reasonable doubt, agree his client willfully failed to comply with the safety plan, amounting to grossly negligent omission leading to serious bodily injury. Rutherford also said when he asked DSS to describe the safety plan, a staff member said: “It’s just a paper the state gives us that we fill out,” downplaying the importance of the document.

“If you can’t say that, without a reasonable doubt, then your job’s over,” Rutherford said, while mimicking checking a “not guilty” box on a verdict form.

The prosecutor said Sylvia was well aware of the plan and admitted during her interview with law enforcement she did not follow it.

Her attorney, Woody White, turned the blame to DSS. He said it was the agency’s failure — not the grandparents — to do what was right for Adalynn that led to the child’s death.

White said when the first DSS worker came to the hospital after Adalynn was born, the person never reviewed Miles’ file. Adalynn was Miles’ fifth child and her four previous kids had been taken from her due to her drug addiction.

White also placed the onus on Miles and her clear track record of reckless behavior.

“Did she intentionally smother her baby?” he asked. “Did she kill the baby, then try to kill herself? Just 15 hours before she said she wished she’d never had her.”

Miles, also on probation with a criminal record, sent a text message, not disclosed to whom, stating her frustration with the baby on Jan. 19. It read: “I wish I’d never had Adalynn.” Oehrlein chalked it up to being exhausted while White used it to place the onus on Miles.

Meanwhile, White pointed to the social workers’ notes regarding Sylvia and Roby’s relationship with Miles’ and Joel’s first child. It included words such as “thriving” and “loved.”

“Do you think Sylvia has a reckless disregard for human life?” White asked the jury. “Could she have done better, yes — but couldn’t we all?”

White noted Sylvia’s behavior does not rise to recklessness and carelessness. He cited an example of leaving a baby in a 100-degree car for three to four hours as more fitting.

Sylvia’s husband, Roby, wasn’t in the house that night, according to Oehrlein. He was at his other residence a few houses down on Ocean Boulevard, which the Garners also own. With Sylvia listed as Adalynn’s primary supervisor, Roby intended to provide backup when Sylvia went to work. Adalynn was under his care for a few weeks earlier in January before her death.

Roby’s attorney Bruce Mason painted the grandfather as a 71-year-old retired man merely doing the best he can, raising a 3-year-old and now assisting with an infant.

Mason also noted Roby’s indictment charge says he was negligent, specifically on Jan. 20.

“So anything before midnight on Jan. 20 has nothing to do with Roby,” he said.

Earlier in the hearing, Mason noted the only time there was an injury to the baby was on Jan. 20 and she was not in Roby’s care; he was asleep at 803 Ocean Blvd.

“State has to prove negligence by Roby and they can’t show it,” he said.

Mason also pointed out, neither DSS nor law enforcement investigators spoke with Roby after the death, though he was present when they came to both the residences on Ocean Boulevard.

“Because they didn’t think he had responsibility,” Mason said. “We have a tragedy here, no question about it, but the government wants you to convict this man of a felony.”

Oehrlein said the temporary safety provider was a voluntary agreement and not forced on Sylvia and Roby, both of whom he said were financially well-off. DSS deemed the two “adequate, competent people to take care of a child,” he said, based on the current dealings with the other child. At the end of the day, though, he said they ignored the plan, which holds them responsible for Adalynn’s death.

He compared it to truancy, where parents are still responsible for their children if they choose not to go to school.

Oehrlein then pointed to Miles’ admission of guilt and testimony to corroborate his evidence and accusations.

“She accepted responsibility, but she was not the only one responsible,” he said during closing statements in court Tuesday morning. 

To prove felony child abuse, the state had to prove the defendants willfully failed to comply with the safety plan and the temporary safety provider agreements, leading to grossly negligent omission — with reckless disregard for human life — resulting in serious bodily injury. 

The 12–person jury was instructed to consider the guilt and innocence of each of the three defendants independently. They deliberated for two hours Tuesday before being dismissed. After reconvening Wednesday morning, the jury came to a guilty verdict for all three defendants. Sentencing came shortly after.

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