Of the five people facing felony charges stemming from the events of June 11, 2011 — the day 8-month-old Kingston White was discovered with a half-inch slice through his tongue — Sheila Barnett stands out.
She is not related to anyone who was in the house that day. Nor was she really friends with them at the time. She had never seen baby Kingston or his twin sister Shakira before. She is not charged with doing anything to the child — in fact she's charged with doing nothing.
She might just as easily have been anywhere else. A fender bender might have stopped her on the way there. One of her two children, to whom she is a single mother, might have woken up sick that day. She might have woken up sick that day and called her co-worker Michelle White to say she wouldn't be able to make it.
But the two were supposed to work in White's kitchen to prepare for a catering event later that night. So she went. Attempting to comfort her, people tell her now she was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I hate that," Barnett says. "I wasn't at the wrong place."
More than three years later, Barnett is somewhere she never would have imagined — sitting in the living room of her Antioch duplex with her attorney and a reporter, talking about life as a woman accused. To call what has happened to her a "miscarriage of justice" would be wrong, if only because it suggests a resolution. Barnett and the other defendants have been awaiting their speedy trial for more than 1,000 days, due to a slow-moving judicial system, two postponements, and the challenge of aligning the schedules of multiple lawyers.
Barnett's trial approaches as child neglect cases across the country are drawing increased debate about the point at which a parental judgment call should become a legal matter. A recent example is Debra Harrell, the South Carolina mother who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a crowded park near her home while she worked as a McDonald's manager. After another adult reported the situation, Harrell was arrested and the state briefly took custody of her daughter.
Barnett's case is different in a variety of ways, most notably that the child in question is not hers. But defense attorneys say one underlying fact holds true: Child neglect cases — which essentially ask if a person could have done more in a situation — can be troublingly murky and vague even when a parent is involved. What about a relative bystander?
When Barnett's day in court comes, she will be facing 15 years or more in jail. But she feels like she's already serving a sentence.
In a thick file on the second floor of the Justice A.A. Birch Building on Second Avenue North, you'll find a report submitted by Metro Nashville Police Detective Jacob Pilarski, who investigated the case. It does not offer a clear picture, by any means. Each of the four adults in the house that day says he or she didn't see whatever happened to Kingston; all claim to have been in three different rooms. Their accounts, as relayed by Pilarski, frequently contradict each other, in ways that may or may not be significant.
Based on Barnett's version of events, with notations identifying where other accounts differ from hers, this is how the day in dispute unfolded:
Larysa Hamilton dropped off Kingston, Shakira, and their 4-year-old brother with their father, her ex-boyfriend Shakir White. Pilarski's report notes that the two "have no history of any violence and have a good relationship," and that White kept the children every weekend.
On this particular Saturday morning, Shakir White brought the twins to the home of Michelle White, his aunt, to babysit while he took his 4-year-old and another child to Nashville Shores. Four people, all African-American, were in the house that day with the children: Michelle White; her husband Mario Gayle; her son Jordan Love; and Sheila Barnett. Barnett and Michelle knew each other through their day job at the time; White had asked Barnett if she wanted to moonlight with a catering business on the side.
Sometime between 3 and 4 p.m., Barnett was in the kitchen, preparing for the catering event she'd be working with White that night. White told police she had been watching the twins in the living room when she asked 20-year-old Love to take over while she got ready. She was with Gayle in their bedroom(1) when she heard Shakira wailing in the living room.
At this point, the accounts diverge. Barnett says she walked in and found the twins lying on the sectional sofa with Love nearby. Michelle White, Gayle and Love, on the other hand, say Love brought the two infants to his mother.(2) This conflicting detail could be revealing — proof of conspiracy among those present, officials would later argue. Or it could be the same event described with a shift in perspective and timing. This much is agreed upon: Although he wasn't crying, Kingston's mouth was full of blood.(3)
The adults stopped the bleeding and called the twins' parents.(4) Barnett, who used to work in an operating room, told White that taking Kingston to the emergency room wouldn't do any good because the ER wouldn't treat an inner mouth cut. The injury would have to heal on its own.(5)
By all accounts, the person closest to the twins when the cut happened was Love. Over the course of several interviews, he told Pilarski that when his mother asked him to watch the twins, he took them from the living-room couch to his bedroom upstairs, where he laid them side by side on their stomachs. Shakira was crying, he said, so he went downstairs to get some napkins to clean her up.(6)
While there, he told police, he heard her start crying louder. He returned and found Kingston on his back, with Shakira lying across him on his chest. He saw the blood, he said, and that's when he took the twins downstairs looking for his mother. Michelle White, Gayle and Love told the detective they assumed Shakira must have kicked Kingston somehow in the mouth.
Kingston's mother wasn't persuaded. At first, based on the message she heard, Larysa Hamilton didn't think the injury sounded that bad. Once she picked up the kids and saw the cut, though, she took Kingston straight to a doctor. When the physician told her there was no way a kick caused the injury, she called police. The doctor did, however, say the same thing as Barnett: The only course of treatment was just to let the cut heal.
In late July, Pilarski asked Love to submit to a voluntary computer voice stress analyzer interview — i.e., a lie detector test. Love agreed, and continued to deny that he had done anything to injure the baby. But the resulting report from that interview declares "Deception Indicated." Pilarski summarizes the interview in his own report:
"Love did say that he knew everything would come back on him. He stated that when he took the kids Kingston was not injured and when he returned them Kingston was injured. I asked if he thought anything was done un-intentionally [sic] and he stated 'probably, that's the only thing I can think of ... ' He kept saying that he didn't understand how it could have happened. He did not understand how that could have happened without [Kingston] crying but he never cried. He stated that if it would have been his [own] tongue injured like that he would have been screamin, 'from here to Mexico.'
"I asked Love what he believed the injury looked like. He stated, 'It looks like someone took a pair of scissors and made a clean cut.'
"I started to ask Love if this whole incident was a freak accident that he was scared to tell me about or ... that [sic] when he interupted [sic] and stated, 'it more leaning towrds [sic] that than me doing anything.' "
Jordan Love would eventually be charged with two counts of aggravated child abuse and two counts of aggravated child neglect. (It would not be his first brush with the law, or his last: His record includes convictions for drug possession and misdemeanor assault.) One abuse count alleges that Love used "a dangerous instrumentality, an unknown cutting instrument, likely a pair of scissors." Police have yet to find such an instrument.
But the charges didn't end there. Everyone else in the house, plus the twins' father, Shakir White, was charged with one count of aggravated child neglect. To receive that charge — a step up from simple neglect — one must be accused of causing "serious bodily injury" to the victim. What makes it odd, in this case, is that the count against Michelle White, Mario Gayle, Shakir White and Sheila Barnett alleges they "delayed seeking medical care for the injury which results in injury healing to point where it cannot be sutured" by the time the baby saw a doctor.
In other words, they are not accused of cutting Kingston White's tongue. They are accused of letting it get better.
In addition, Michelle White, Gayle and Barnett were charged with one count of accessory after the fact. It alleges that they lied to Pilarski during the course of his investigation to "conceal what actually happen [sic]."
Others involved in the case have moved on. Pilarski is no longer on the force. After an incident in which he was spotted in Shelby Park with a woman from the Davidson County District Attorney's office in his police vehicle — a matter investigated by Metro's Office of Professional Accountability — he resigned in 2013 before a pending disciplinary hearing. Metro police spokesman Don Aaron tells the Scene that the department has no reason to doubt his investigative work. As for Kingston, in the end his tongue had healed on its own without complication several months later, according to Pilarski's testimony in a preliminary hearing.
Three years later, however, Barnett and the others still face felony charges. In early 2013, Barnett's attorney, Sam Wooden, and Shakir White's attorney, Chad Davidson, moved to dismiss on grounds that the state could not establish serious bodily injury had been done to Kingston. They cited two doctors — including the one who first saw the child — who stated the tongue would "heal on its own," and they emphasized that it did just that.
"To permit the State to proceed with such an argument would establish an unbelievably slippery slope," they wrote, "in which the state, at its discretion, could charge any parent or child guardian, or friend of such guardians' with aggravated child neglect for any injury in which the parents do not rush the child to the hospital." Their motion was not granted.
Wooden tried again in March 2013. He moved to dismiss on grounds that his client had no legal duty to the child. Barnett has no relation to Kingston, had never even met him, and did not agree to babysit him, he argued. The state conceded every point — but argued that new proof could be established at trial. The motion was denied.
In one regard, Barnett is lucky the incident happened so long ago. In the years since she was charged, the state legislature has passed law in each of the past two sessions increasing the mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated child neglect or endangerment. Those changes went into effect July 1. Under the law effective in 2011, if convicted she will face 15 to 25 years in jail, but she will be eligible for parole once she's served 30 percent of the sentence.
The bright side? If the incident had happened after July 1 and she were convicted, she'd be looking at 85 percent.
Today, sitting in her living room, Barnett projects more calm than you'd expect from someone facing trial and the specter of more than a decade in jail.
"You should have met her the day I met her," says her attorney. The memory brings howls of laughter from them now. But as Wooden re-enacts it, their panicked first meeting sounds more like tragedy.
"You don't understand!" Wooden says, imitating her in an emotional voice made squeaky by fear and outrage. "This is not me! You don't understand! This is not me!"
Barnett does not dispute his impression.
If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. That's how Barnett ended up with Wooden, 29, whose boyish appearance initially worried her. But by that point, she wasn't in a position to complain. Three attorneys in a row passed on taking her case as she sat in the courtroom. She remembers the judge going down the line — nope, nope, nope.
"There was a woman in the courtroom," Barnett says. "This is what really hurt my feelings. A woman. She looked like she was a mother. A woman. She said, 'No.' Just the look on her face and I'm like, 'Oh my God.' She gave me the dirtiest look, like I was just the scum of the earth. So when Sam was like, 'Sure, I'll take the case,' that was a relief."
Barnett, 34, was born and raised in Antioch. She still lives there today with her two children, one 16, the other 6. She has worked at CVS Caremark for eight years and recently became an interim trainer there, where she says her bosses have been surprisingly supportive. Her record includes a C-Misdemeanor from criminal trespass when she was a teenager, but it's been clean ever since.
In the days following that weekend in 2011, she says she checked in with Michelle White to see how the baby was doing, but she never expected anything more to come of the matter. When Pilarski first called her, she still thought little of it. Believing that any involvement she had was peripheral at best, she spoke freely to him — perhaps naively, she says in retrospect. When he called back the next month, she felt more like a suspect.
"I'm pretty smart," Barnett says. "He's asking me the same question different ways. And I'm like, 'You already asked me that, and I gave you those answers.' And he's like, 'Well, Sheila, you know what? I don't think you did it, but I think you know what happened.' And I'm like, now I'm agitated."
Pilarski could tell. His report notes that "it was very apparent that she was very irritated from the beginning and not willing to cooperate" and that "she kept referring to the point that I have kept calling her over and over. I have only spoken with her 1 other time."
Barnett says she was stressed from working 12- to 14-hour days and from the feeling that she was being investigated.
"Words were exchanged," she says, "because I'm like, at this point, do I need a lawyer?"
She did. Months later, on a Saturday in March 2012, she got a call from her son at home. He told her the police were at the door. She asked him to put the officer on the phone, and she remembers the conversation:
"Are you Ms. Barnett?"
"Where are you?"
"I'm at work."
"I have a warrant for your arrest."
"Aggravated child neglect."
Her mind was racing, she says, assuming something must have happened to her own children. But they were fine. It was Kingston White — who was more than a year old by then, his tongue long healed.
The officer told her to turn herself in the following Tuesday. She called her father, a bail bondsman. He went with her when she turned herself in. Because her parents paid her bail, she spent only an hour in jail and never wore handcuffs.
Others who have ended up in legal limbo awaiting trial have not been so lucky.
In April 2009, Aniya Wiley, a single black mother, was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated child abuse and two counts of aggravated child neglect, in a case pursued by Nashville Assistant District Attorney Brian Holmgren. According to Wiley, her son had fallen off a bed at her home and, after crying for a bit, seemed to be better. Later on, after discovering a red knot on his head — and showing it to family and co-workers, who concluded it was a spider bite — Wiley took the child to see a doctor. An X-ray found a fracture in the boy's skull. The case was referred to Vanderbilt, where doctors concluded the injury could only have come from severe abuse, even though the child showed no outward signs.
Once she was arrested and put in jail, Wiley was stuck. She didn't have the money to pay her bond, initially set at $100,000. Nor did she have anyone who could pay it for her and put up the requisite collateral. Her attorney, Jennifer Thompson, says now that's not just the reason she was stuck in jail: It's also one reason authorities concluded she must have abused the child.
"One of the reasons they specifically targeted her was because she met the profile," Thompson says. "They said she's single, she's young, she's poor, she doesn't have a family support system, and therefore she meets the clear profile of a child abuser."
Wiley would sit in jail for nearly four years awaiting trial, during which she turned down a plea deal that would have meant more jail time. When her day in court finally came, a jury found her not guilty of everything except for a lesser charge on which they were hung. At that moment, Holmgren offered her a bargain: She could plead guilty to misdemeanor reckless endangerment, and be released that day on probation. After years in jail already, she accepted. Thompson says that after the proceeding, members of the jury gathered around Wiley in tears, hugging her.
Barnett doesn't have to sit in jail awaiting resolution the way Wiley did. But relative freedom didn't keep her hair from falling out, as it did early on. It didn't ward off her panic attacks, or eliminate the need for the anxiety medication she takes to this day. The calm voice she uses now to talk about her situation is a fairly new development.
Adding to her anxiety early on was that she never knew how colleagues and employers would react to her situation. Last October, WSMV-Channel 4 ran a story on her case that served to break the news to many of her co-workers. That fact weighed heavily on her as she walked into work the next day.
"As I walked up the hallway, this lady said come here, and it was one of my co-workers," she says. "And she just prayed for me in the middle of the [hallway]. She just put her hands on me and she just prayed.
"I used to cry every night. I haven't cried since then."
But the thought of sitting in a cell until both her children are adults hasn't left her mind.
"I've talked to them — you know, 'If something happens to Mommy, this is what's gonna happen, this is where you're gonna go, this is what we're gonna do,' " she says. "My 6-year-old doesn't understand that. My 16-year-old does understand it, and he doesn't want to deal with it. Who wants to think about that? It's hard for him to process."
Barnett might not be trying to prepare her children for her potential incarceration, if her case had landed on a different prosecutor's desk. But that was another stroke of misfortune. As it happens, it landed on Brian Holmgren's.
Holmgren currently leads the child abuse unit in the Davidson County District Attorney's office. He had clerked in the office in the early '80s before graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School, and he came back in 1999 after a 10-year stint as an assistant DA in Kenosha County, Wis., (where he directed the sensitive crimes unit) and four years as a senior attorney for the American Prosecutor's Research Institute's National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. At least one fellow prosecutor describes him as exactly the sort of advocate the public would want going after those who prey on children.
"He takes a very strong approach," says attorney Rob McGuire, who worked alongside Holmgren for 12 years in the DA's office and describes him as a friend. "He is a tough prosecutor. He believes very vigorously that children have to be protected and that when people fail to protect children or if they hurt them, then they should be punished."
That tenacity has earned Holmgren a reputation far beyond Nashville. For years he has lectured at state and national conferences about how to pursue child abuse cases, and he has contributed to manuals on the same. He's become a published authority on the prosecution of cases involving shaken baby syndrome — a condition that comes up frequently in child-abuse litigation, and has increasingly come under fire from scientists and doctors as a hard-to-diagnose catch-all for eager prosecutors, even in cases where there's no prior history of abuse. Holmgren has dismissed such concerns, painting critics of the condition as mercenary experts-for-hire. According to a post by Sue Luttner, a blogger who follows the shaken baby syndrome debate, he brought out a singing pediatrician at a 2010 Atlanta conference to perform a sarcastic Wizard of Oz-inspired ditty called "If I Only Get Ten Grand."
Holmgren declined to comment on Barnett's case or criticism of his performance as a prosecutor. And in fairness, even defense attorneys who are harshly critical of Holmgren acknowledge his abilities as a litigator. They also concede that his job can put him up against the worst of the worst: people who have committed violent crimes against children or shown criminal disregard for their safety. As a result, they say, he's so good at the trial game that less seasoned attorneys and inexperienced expert witnesses can be bowled over by him.
Defense attorneys who've faced him, however, say that innocent parents or caretakers who have experienced a tragic accident — or less than criminal lapses in judgment — can end up as collateral damage. The Scene spoke to six defense attorneys who described Holmgren — independently and unprompted by a reporter — in terms such as "zealot" and "uniquely aggressive." None would speak on the record, for fear that current or future clients would face repercussions.
Multiple attorneys report having trouble getting some expert witnesses to agree to return to Nashville for future cases after experiences in the courtroom with Holmgren. Depending on your side of the chambers, that could be a measure of excessive zeal or a mark of distinction. But the Scene spoke to one who says he would gladly do it again.
"The only way bullies like that are stopped is when people stand up to them," says Dr. N. Garrett Powell, a neurosurgeon who spoke to the Scene by phone from Florida just after getting out of surgery.
Powell lived and practiced in Nashville for nearly a decade before moving south in 2010. During that time he testified as an expert witness in a shaken baby case Holmgren was prosecuting. He says he felt the defendant was being "railroaded" and says he told Holmgren as much from the stand.
Powell has done his share of testimony, and he says Holmgren stood out among other prosecutors he has faced. He was "more aggressive," he says, "and his attacks on me were ad-hominem."
"What served me well in that situation was two things," Powell says. "One, I've had some experience in the courtroom before, so I felt comfortable in front of the jury. And number two, I don't like assholes."
Rob McGuire says he's not surprised when defense attorneys tangle with him or see him in a less than glowing light. And yet McGuire, who is about to become a defense attorney himself, leaving the office to start a firm after losing to Glenn Funk in this summer's DA race, says he and Holmgren have disagreed on cases, ones Holmgren pursued when he wouldn't have. Even so, he says Holmgren "has done this community a great service by fighting for kids."
So on the one side, there's a prosecutor who's tasked with putting away those who hurt children and allow the innocent to be hurt. And on the other, there's Sheila Barnett — who showed up one day three years ago for a catering gig and has lived under a cloud of confusion and suspicion ever since. She is accused of not caring for a child she didn't know, whose parents she hadn't met, in a house that wasn't hers.
Could Sheila Barnett have done more for Kingston White on June 11, 2011? That's just the kind of vague, hard-to-answer question that makes child neglect cases a nightmare for defense attorneys, and one reason many try to avoid taking them to trial. As a result, the cases often end with plea bargains.
Barnett says Holmgren offered her probation in exchange for a guilty plea, and she says she almost took it.
"I was just so tired of going to court," she says. "I was at my wit's end."
But she learned that if she took the deal, she would never be able to get the crime expunged from her record. The incident would follow her, and the words "child neglect" would be attached to her name forever, as surely as the names of her own kids. So she turned it down.
Barring another delay, then, her trial is scheduled for October. After a three-year wait to find out if she'll go to prison, lose her family and freedom, and miss the remainder of her own kids' childhood, what's another couple months?
(1) According to Pilarski’s report, in her first interview Barnett said she, Michelle White and Gayle were all in the kitchen together. In a later interview she said she was in the kitchen alone while they were in the bedroom. The other individuals’ accounts match the latter version.
(2) In independent interviews, Michelle White and Gayle said Love brought the children to them in their bedroom. In two separate interviews, Barnett said the twins were on the couch when the adults walked into the living room.
(3) Michelle White and Gayle told Pilarski that Shakira had blood on her foot, leading them to believe that Shakira had kicked Kingston, causing the cut in his tongue. Barnett told Pilarski she saw blood on Shakira’s shirt, but nowhere else.
(4) Barnett and Michelle White both told Pilarski that White called the babies’ parents more than once. In her first interview, Barnett said Michelle called “both parents numerous times but no one answered.” In a later interview, White said she called the twins’ mother Larysa Hamilton “2-3 times and left a message” and that she called the twins’ father Shakir White to let him know what happened, and he said he was coming home. Hamilton said she had one voicemail from Michelle White.
(5) Citing her prior work in social services, White told Pilarski that “she knew nothing could be done at the doctor’s office.” When she spoke with the Scene, Barnett says White also called a friend, a physician’s assistant who told them to put cold compression on it, but that other than stopping the bleeding they couldn’t really do anything about it.
(6) In a later interview, Pilarski says in his report, Love said he had gone downstairs to fix the twins bottles. Love also initially told Pilarski he didn’t know what room Barnett was in at the time, but later said she was in the bathroom.