Since the unexpected death of her husband, Mike, Marsha Mills' day revolved around caring in her home for her two beloved granddaughters, and occasionally Evan and Noah Shoup, toddlers of her daughter's best friend.
On May 10, 2006 her life would be forever changed. After feeding lunch to the four kids, Marsha and the children went out the back door to play in the yard. With her infant granddaughter in her arms, Marsha turned to close the door, when 2-year-old Noah fell from the porch to a concrete patio below.
The blur of events that followed had her moving the unconscious child indoors, calling the child's father, who called 911, and while continuing to watch over three other children, Marsha dealt with emergency workers and police asking questions of what happened. What she never suspected at the time was that local authorities were in the process of building a case to hold Marsha responsible. Noah died the following day. When the Summit County Coroner came back with the autopsy, Marsha was charged with three counts of murder, two counts of felonious assault, and one count of child endangerment. (Two of the charges, one count of murder and one count of child endangerment were later dropped.)
After a long year of motions and pretrial hearings, a jury of five women and seven men, mostly married and most with children, were seated. Defense attorney, Public Defender Gerald Latanich, maintained that the child accidentally fell down the back steps to the concrete below, striking his head.
"Noah's death was no accident," Assistant Prosecutor Michael Ernest said. "He died from blunt force trauma to his head and neck. That trauma was inflicted on him. Noah died as a result of a beating he sustained at the hands of Marsha Mills."
NPPD Det. Larry Hootman was the first detective to interview Marsha at her home immediately after the accident. He testified that based on his investigation at the scene, it was a "freak accident". He was removed from the case.
New Philadelphia Police Detective Michael Goodwin later testified that ultraviolet imaging equipment was used throughout the house and no substances were detected or collected as evidence.
So with no physical evidence as to where in the house this happened, no blunt force weapon or even a motive, the trial was reduced to expert witnesses on both sides.
Prosecution witness Dr. Daryl Steiner, the medical director of the Child Abuse Care Center at Akron Children's Hospital, testified at length about the injuries suffered by the boy. In his opinion, the injuries were the result of abuse. He said this type of bleeding can occur accidentally - as a result of a child being involved in a motor vehicle accident or falling off a swing and hitting the ground - but is common in abusive injuries.
Dr. George Sterbenz, the chief deputy medical examiner for Summit County, a forensic pathologist who has performed more than 3,000 autopsies and conducted one on the child on May 13, 2006, followed Steiner with a Power-Point presentation of 72 graphic and sometimes gruesome photos taken after 24 hours of intensive and invasive medical therapy and autopsy. None of the photographs showed his condition when first admitted to the emergency room at either hospital.
He based his homicide decision on the number of bruises across the child's body, saying they were caused by blunt force trauma by a beating of some sort. Even though numerous State's witnesses testified that he wasn't bruised upon admission at either Union Hospital or Akron Children's Hospital, he explained he found bruising on the boy's face, torso and extremities. In response to a question from Asst. Prosecutor Mike Ernest, Sterbenz used a doll to demonstrate, hypothetically, the kind of attack that could have caused Shoup's injuries and subsequent death. Sterbenz violently slammed the doll several times onto the courtroom floor and, later, a chair.
Defense attorney Latanich asked Sterbenz whether there was any major bone damage to Shoup's body. Sterbenz said there wasn't. Also, on questioning from Latanich, Sterbenz said he could not make out distinct finger marks or fingernail marks on Shoup's body.
With the burden of proof on the prosecution, one may wonder how the jury would not have reasonable doubt, and the defense had not even gotten under way.
Public Defender Latanich based his defense on two expert witnesses. The first to testify was Biomechanical Engineer Dr. Chris VanEe of Ypsilanti, Mich., who told the jury how, based on his research and testing, a child could suffer severe or fatal head injuries as a result of a fall down the back steps. VanEe's testimony - which lasted nearly six hours - directly contradicted that of several prosecution witnesses who said a short fall cannot cause fatal injuries. VanEe has worked extensively in the field of car and air travel safety.He said he has done lab tests on cadavers and looked at the forces necessary to cause injury in an effort to develop better crash test dummies.
VanEe said he has studied head, neck and chest injuries extensively in his work with the Society of Automotive Engineers and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. He rented crash test dummies from research facilities and built a replica of the back porch/step area at Mills' former residence.
VanEe showed jurors videotape of himself repeatedly standing the dummies on the porch and on all of the steps and letting them fall in a variety of ways. Most of the falls were backward down the steps. "Based on my testing and research, it is possible, on a bad, worst-case fall where the arms don't go out to protect the head, a child falls and hits his head on the steps or on the landing (and) that could result in serious or fatal head injury."
Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist from Welch, Minn., followed. "A head impact injury caused Noah's death," Plunkett said. "His death was probably accidental. I have no evidence to prove it was anything else than accidental. The injury is consistent with what Ms. Mills stated happened... that Noah misses a step and falls."
The impact initially caused the boy to lose consciousness, Plunkett said. The impact was not the immediate cause of death, however.
"As a result of the cardiopulmonary arrest (no heartbeat or breathing) there was a period of time the brain was without oxygen," he explained. "He developed brain swelling. It was brain swelling that was the immediate cause of death." He said many of the marks on the boy's body don't mean anything because they resulted from a "blood coagulation system gone haywire" and are not indications of abuse. He said an anti-coagulant drug given for the organ harvest also contributed to the condition of the boy's body.
Plunkett disagreed with all of the prosecution's medical witnesses by saying rotational acceleration/deceleration does not cause retinal hemorrhage. He said those opinions are not supported by studies done on infant eye injury.
Plunkett has published five articles in various medical journals on the subjects of short distance falls, retinal hemorrhaging and bleeding on the brain relating to children.
He said he came to his conclusion that short distance falls - any falls 10 feet or less - can cause serious and fatal injury after reviewing statistics on playground equipment injuries compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He said out of 600 reports of injury in 11 years, he found 114 fatalities, and 18 of those were because of falls. Four of the children suffered extensive retinal hemorrhaging and seven bleeding on the brain. One of those fatal falls was caught on videotape, but because of earlier rulings by Judge Elizabeth Lehigh Thomakos, that videotape was not allowed to be shown.
On June 15, 2007, the jury deliberated for five hours and found Marsha guilty on all four of the remaining charges. Five days later she was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility after 15 years are served. She is now in a maximum security prison for a crime that she did not commit.