DADE CITY — Avon Alicia McKoy was working as a nurse at Pasco Regional Medical Center when she learned of a patient there who was pregnant and wanted to give up her baby. McKoy had always wanted a child of her own.
She took the baby boy home in November 2006.
One morning, when he was about 6 weeks old, McKoy noticed he was having trouble breathing and called 911. The child went to the hospital but was soon acting lively and breathing normally again. The staff was about to discharge him, according to McKoy's attorney.
But as she sat rocking him, she noticed how he winced when she touched a spot on his head, and that's when doctors discovered a skull fracture.
He was flown to Tampa General Hospital, with McKoy in the helicopter, and another skull fracture was found. A few days later, investigators told McKoy they believed the baby had been abused and she could have no more contact with him.
She was charged with aggravated child abuse in early 2007 and went to trial last month. A jury found her guilty of the lesser charge of child abuse, which could have sent her to prison for up to five years.
But in a hearing last week, Circuit Judge Susan Gardner took the rare step of granting a judgment of acquittal — essentially throwing out the jury's verdict.
To prove child abuse the state must show that a defendant intentionally inflicted physical or mental injury. Gardner said there was no evidence of any intentional harm.
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During interviews with investigators, McKoy, now 40, said the baby had rolled off the couch onto the floor during the night. The following morning was when she noticed him not breathing.
Steve Herman, a public defender who represented McKoy in trial, called a doctor who testified how the baby's skull injuries could have been caused by the fall. One fracture occurred when the baby hit the floor. The other, on the opposite side of his head, happened from the inside out, as pressure radiated across the baby's soft head.
"You definitely knew that somebody didn't strike the child in that spot," Herman said.
A doctor who testified for the state concluded the injuries were caused by abuse, but he hadn't looked at the brain scans himself, Herman said.
He asked for a judgment of acquittal once the state finished with its case. Gardner denied it.
But after the verdict, he asked the judge to reconsider.
"Here was … somebody who wanted to adopt a baby and (had) been a nurse and cared for children, and this was something she wanted to do in life," Herman said. "It was an unreasonable thought to me that somebody with her experience, her personality — always calm — and then having this opportunity to adopt, why some circumstance would have caused her … to have slammed this baby's head down on a hard surface or struck it with a hard object.
"From the get-go, I just couldn't swallow that."
Gardner, in the hearing, said the jury's verdict was "contrary to the evidence."
Prosecutors have not said whether they will appeal.
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The adoption never went through, Herman said. The birth mother had signed some preliminary papers giving McKoy some legal authority. But after her arrest that process came to a halt.
The boy, now 4, is back with his birth mother, Herman said. He suffered mild seizures for a while but has since fully recovered.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.