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Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

‘Not guilty’: Michelle Gibson freed after jury rejects second-degree murder, manslaughter charges

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Michelle Gibson, a single mother charged with second-degree murder in the death of her 8-year-old son, Devin, was found not guilty Monday (May 22) after a week-long jury trial.

Devin died from heat exposure after Gibson left him in her car while working a 16-hour shift at Mountain Trace Nursing Home in Webster. The verdict was handed down on the one-year anniversary of Devin’s death.

Gibson has spent the past year in the Jackson County jail, unable to visit her son’s grave. She has not received counseling nor been permitted to visit with a pastor. Gibson’s attorney, Randy Seago, said nothing will make up for the year Gibson spent in jail, but thanks to the jury’s verdict she can finally begin the healing process.

“The Jackson County jury is made up of people with a whole lot of commons sense, which is all the case required,” Seago said following the verdict. “It is rare for justice to be so great and so pure, and it is a beautiful thing.”

Gibson wept when the verdict was announced after four hours of jury deliberation. Supporters stacking the benches on Gibson’s side of the courtroom applauded and thanked God for answering their prayers.

 

A legal defense

In his closing statements, Seago told jurors to imagine large boxes sitting on the floor at the front of the courtroom marked “malice,” “intent,” “bent on mischief ” and “disregard for human life” — elements required for second-degree murder. It was the prosecution’s job to fill those boxes with evidence, but they had not, Seago said.

The jury did not make its ruling based on sympathy for Gibson, juror Greg Duff said after the trial. Instead, the panel members applied legal definitions to the facts of the case as instructed by the judge, he said, and did not believe Gibson’s actions met the legal litmus test for second-degree murder.

Duff said the jury quickly dismissed second-degree murder as an option and spent the large part of the deliberation deciding between not guilty and involuntary manslaughter — a lesser charge the jury could have opted for. Seago actually advocated for involuntary manslaughter on several occasions during the trial. But involuntary manslaughter requires a “reckless disregard for human life,” which the jury ultimately felt was not justified.

The prosecutor, Roy Wijewickrama, agreed that Gibson did not intend to kill her son. But Gibson did intend to keep him in a car for 16 hours — an act that in and of itself was reckless and lacked regard for human life, according to the prosecutor — an act that in turn resulted in her son’s death.

“We don’t have to prove Michelle Gibson intended to kill Devin. That would be first-degree murder,” Wijewickrama said. “The intentional act was putting him in that car.”

Wijewickrama said Gibson knew it was wrong to keep Devin in a car all day. She hid Devin in the trunk on the drive over from Asheville so a woman she carpooled with wouldn’t know he was there. Gibson put Devin in pull-up diaper pants so he would not have to get out of the car to go to the bathroom.

“She told him to stay in that vehicle and gave him the diapers and told him if you need to use the bathroom, this is where you do it,” Wijewickrama said. “Folks, you wouldn’t treat a dog that way. We wouldn’t leave a dog in a car like that.”

Wijewickrama said this showed Gibson was “bent on mischief.”

But Seago argued the contrary. Gibson and Devin had been in and out of homelessness for more than a year. The car was the only living space in the world they could call their own, the only constant in their lives, Seago said.

“The car was not the scary place to Devin that the (prosecutor) wants us to believe,” Seago said. “It was something he was very accustomed to.”

 

Fateful decision

While defense witnesses portrayed Gibson as a poor single mother struggling to get by, Wijewickrama told jurors that despite Seago’s attempt to portray Gibson as a victim of society, that’s not what the case is about.

“She said she had an obligation to work. I say she had an obligation to her child. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions as a parent. It’s part of being a parent, and she failed,” Wijewickrama said in closing arguments. “It’s not pleasant and it may sound mean saying it, but it’s the truth. That’s why we are here today.”

Gibson worked for STAT Nursing Services, an agency in Asheville that provides fill-in workers to short-staffed nursing homes. The nursing agency called Gibson on Thursday and asked her to work double shifts both Saturday and Sunday of the coming weekend. Gibson said yes, hoping her roommate or roommate’s boyfriend could watch Devin. But Gibson said Devin begged to go with her rather than be left with the roommate and her boyfriend.

“I explained, ‘Devin honey, mommy has to go work.’ He said ‘Mommy I don’t want to stay with Michelle. She makes me feel like I’m not a part of their family and sometimes she says things to me I don’t think she should say to me because she’s not my mom,’” Gibson told jurors in a teary testimony.

Numerous witnesses testified that Devin was overly dependent on Gibson. A teacher and school counselors said Devin frequently asked to call his mom during the school day just to say “hi.” Gibson’s acquaintances and co-workers described Devin as “clingy.”

Wijewickrama asked Gibson why she simply didn’t call her employer and tell them her childcare fell through and she couldn’t make it.

“That would be grounds of me being fired, to wait until the last minute and call them and say I couldn’t come in,” Gibson replied.

Gibson’s anguish over her decision to bring Devin to work was reflected in series of partial written statements she made for detectives the night following Devin’s death. An Asheville detective who was the first to question Gibson shared a stack of a dozen or so written statements with jurors. Gibson was unable to muster more than one or two sentences before giving up on her statement each time

“Thursday I decided to work 16 hours Saturday and Sunday so I could ...” read one.

“Devin was really upset about me going to Sylva and didn’t want to stay with my roommate. I gave in and told him to get his bear and his covers and come on ...” read another.

 

Inside the car

Gibson carpooled to Mountain Trace nursing home in Webster with another woman from Asheville who also worked for STAT nursing agency. Gibson hid Devin in the trunk during the ride so the other woman wouldn’t know he was in the car. Gibson said the back seats of her car folded down, and as soon as she got to the nursing home she lowered the seats so Devin had access to the rest of the car.

The prosecutor initially challenged whether Gibson lowered the seats to give Devin access to the car, but dropped the assertion by the trial’s end, arguing it was of no consequence.

“Whether he was in the trunk or the backseat, he was baking in the sun and it killed him,” Wijewickrama said. “I don’t care what part of the vehicle he was in — it’s irrelevant.”

But that leaves the sticky problem of why Devin didn’t simply climb out of the car when it became unbearable. The doors had manual locks, allowing Devin to open them from inside the car if he wished. Gibson asked this question herself in her testimony to jurors.

“He could play anywhere he wanted to in that car,” Gibson said. “I don’t understand to this day why he didn’t get out of that car.”

A doctor who performed the autopsy testified that the early stages of heat exposure interfere with brain function, causing a victim to become disoriented and confused. But when detectives arrested Gibson, they suspected her of locking Devin in the trunk, possibly even sedating him and tying him up.

“The fact that an 8-year-old child stayed for 16 hours on Saturday and 10 hours on Sunday in the car without making a commotion or being noticed leads this investigator to suspect the victim was sedated or bound while in the trunk of the car,” Jackson County Detective Patrick McCoy wrote in a search warrant for the car.

Gibson recoiled at the idea during her testimony.

“I am a parent. I am a mother. I would have to be a monster to confine my child to a trunk,” Gibson said.

A search of Gibson’s car turned up a child’s meal toy and Power Rangers action figures but no evidence that Devin was bound. An autopsy on Devin showed no signs of medication or substances. But law enforcement and prosecutors had already charged Gibson with second-degree murder. Seago claimed the charges should have been lowered after their initial assumption proved false.

 

Final hours

Gibson said she checked on her son frequently during her shifts, bringing him honey buns, chips, candy bars and drinks.

“I was at my car every chance I got,” Gibson told jurors. Workers at Mountain Trace testified that Gibson took numerous breaks and kept going out to the parking lot but they didn’t know why. On Sunday, Gibson took Devin to the drive-thru at Burger King for a Kid’s Meal during her lunch break just before noon. Gibson checked on her son again around 2:30 p.m. Devin told his mom he was hot, but Gibson didn’t realize how hot. She told him to take off his two t-shirts and she left the windows partially down.

“I didn’t see where it was that hot and dangerous my son could suffer heat exhaustion,” Gibson told jurors. “I would never had left my son in that car if I thought it was so hot he couldn’t breath. I would never had done that — never.”

Gibson discovered her son dead when she checked on him again sometime around 4 p.m. She tried to resuscitate him with CPR. She sat in the car with his body for at least 30 minutes before returning inside and telling the head nurse she had a family emergency and had to leave to drive back to Asheville. Wijewickrama questioned why she didn’t call 911 or go to the hospital immediately.

“I knew nothing of this town,” Gibson said. “I just lost my baby. I am sorry I wasn’t responsible or in the state of mind to call 911 or stay at the scene. I wasn’t running from anything, I just wanted to go home.”

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