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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

An outpouring of support

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When Rose Smith read about the tragic death of an 8-year-old boy left in a car in the parking lot of Mountain Trace Nursing Home in Webster last May, her heart sank.

Michelle Gibson, a single mother who was homeless at the time, had no weekend childcare for her son, Devin. So she packed him in the car and brought him along while she worked a 16-hour shift. She checked on him regularly throughout the day, bringing him snacks and drinks and even taking him to get a happy meal from Burger King. But as temperatures rose in the afternoon, Devin died from heat exhaustion in the car while Gibson cared for the elderly patients inside. Gibson was charged with second-degree degree murder.

Smith, who lives in Sylva, said the charge was harsh. Smith still lives with regret for the death of her own child. She accidentally ran over her 14-month-old decades ago in the driveway of their home.

“I immediately felt empathy for her,” Smith said of Gibson. “This poor girl has suffered a great deal.”

Smith wrote letters to Gibson in jail and the two corresponded regularly over the past year. As the trial approached, Smith told Gibson to look for her in court wearing a yellow hat and scarf.

Smith was joined by nearly a dozen women on the first day of trial last Tuesday, none of whom had met Gibson but showed up to stack the benches on Gibson’s side of the Jackson County courtroom.

“There is a great deal of loneliness for single women trying to makes it in the world,” said Alice Mason, a member of the clergy at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Cullowhee who attended the trial. Mason was a single mother herself.

“I know the difficulty of finding childcare,” Mason said. “This case should raise awareness to the inadequacies in our system for people who are struggling to make ends meet.”

Gibson has been on the prayer list at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sylva for the past year. Several in the denomination were making plans to house her until she could get back on her feet.

“We felt it was such a sad story,” said Barbara Osment of Sylva. “She was doing her best to work. She just used very poor judgment. She truly did not realize the level of danger in the car.”

As the trial garnered media attention over the course of the week, supporters on Gibson’s side of the courtroom swelled to more than two dozen. All cited sympathy with Gibson as a woman trying to provide for her children with no backup from the father, family, friends or society.

“I saw it as a symbol of the tragedy we have in this country with poor working parents,” said Tina Jenkins, a psychiatric nurse in Asheville. “Women in particular run into problems with wages and housing and childcare.”

Jenkins said Gibson was caught in a catch 22 everywhere she turned. When she was offered a raise at work, the extra dollar and hour would have bumped her out of the income bracket for housing assistance so she turned it down. When she couldn’t find childcare for Devin before school, she was habitually late for her 7 a.m. shift and was fired. When she bounced several checks and then slipped behind on their payment, she was put in jail for three weeks — pushing her even further behind and eventually into homelessness.

“I think this is a case that calls upon us to have compassion for folks that are struggling to make ends meet,” Jenkins said.

Diane Nettles, who like Gibson works as a CNA in a nursing home, drove 90 minutes from Celo to Sylva each day for the trial.

“I know what it is like to be starting a new job and be pulling a 16 hour shift your first day,” Nettles said.

Gibson worked for a nursing agency that farms out workers to short-staffed rest homes. When Gibson agreed to work 16-hour shifts at Mountain Trace on Saturday and Sunday that tragic weekend last May, she didn’t know the other staff, the floor layout, where supplies were kept or the residents’ preferences and routines. After working 16 hours and driving 90 minutes back to Asheville on Saturday, Gibson got less than four hours sleep before rising early to do it again on Sunday.

“I wonder about anyone staffing someone that way and expecting them to be competent, let alone that she had a child in the car she was trying to care for,” Nettles said. “When people were demonizing her right away, I was blown away. What are people expecting of her?”

Supporters on Gibson’s side of the court room felt Gibson’s grief over the loss of her son was punishment enough. Dottie Hedden of Sylva said Gibson is not a danger to the rest of society and prison time would be unjust.

“I am hoping those people sitting there can consider the fact that this has been more a case of misfortunate that anything else,” Hedden said of the jurors. “As I hear more about her relationship with Devin, I am overwhelmed at the grief she went through and still goes through.”

Witnesses described Gibson as a loving and caring mother. A school teacher, two school guidance counselors and an assistant principal said Gibson was more involved than most parents and took a large role in her son’s education. Workers with the Salvation Army, social workers, neighbors, former co-workers and bosses all said Gibson’s world revolved around her children. For two days jurors heard about Gibson’s loving relationship with Devin.

The only witness prosecutors could find to speak negatively about Gibson was a former neighbor from public housing, who offered less than credible testimony. The prosecutors’ side of the courtroom was empty save a handful of detectives who worked Gibson’s case.

Trial spectators questioned the rationale of the district attorney in pursuing second-degree murder in the case in the first place.

“I felt an injustice was being served,” said Sue Ellen Bridgers, a member of St. John’s church in Sylva. “The second-degree murder charge was not appropriate.”

Bridgers said law enforcement and prosecutors rushed to charge Gibson before understanding the circumstances. But after sitting through reams of testimony that painted Gibson as a poor, working mother who loved her children and a clear dearth of evidence to the contrary, Hedden said the prosecutors and law enforcement should have thrown in the towel and accepted Gibson’s offer of a plea bargain for what was a tragic accident.

“They could end this thing right now,” Hedden said during a recess on the third day of trial.

Following the not guilty verdict, supporters waited outside the jail doors until Gibson emerged a free woman, toting her belongings from jail in a white trash bag.

“Thank you for your support — your prayers, your letters, your cards,” Gibson told supporters and media swarmed around her.

“It has been a very long year,” said Gibson, who was not permitted visits from counselors nor chaplains while in the Jackson County jail.

Bridgers is establishing a fund to help Gibson get back on her feet. For more information call 828.586.6271.

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