The Innocence Project law clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law has helped free a client from prison after proving he was convicted of a crime he did not commit.
The Circuit Court for Tyler County recently vacated the conviction of Christopher Dodrill. In 2016, Dodrill was found guilty of child abuse with serious bodily injury and unlawful assault after a child under his care became injured. He was sentenced to three-to-15 years in prison.
Dodrill consistently testified that the child fell and hit her head, and that he took her to the hospital. The child fully recovered, but because she had brain swelling and a subdural hematoma, the hospital diagnosed her with Shaken Baby Syndrome without eliminating other possible causes of her injuries.
At his trial, Dodrill had no doctors or expert witnesses to consult or testify on his behalf, making it his word against the hospital’s diagnosis.
On Dodrill’s behalf, the WVIP submitted to the court reports from a biomechanical expert and a pediatric neurologist, as well as depositions of the state’s primary expert and defense counsel. They proved that the child under Dodrill’s care had underlying health issues made worse by the fall and that Dodrill did not cause her injuries.
Judge David W. Hummell, Jr., of the Tyler County Circuit Court found that Dodrill’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to consult with or hire a defense expert when his client was on trial and subsequently reversed the conviction.
“This is the second case in which a West Virginia Innocence Project client has been freed because defense attorneys did not investigate the controversial diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome, and experts have found and supported an alternative cause of injury,” said Valena Beety, professor of law and director of the West Virginia Innocence Project. “Chris should never have served time for a crime he did not commit, but at least his case shines a light on controversial and faulty Shaken Baby Syndrome prosecutions in our state.”
Dodrill’s freedom is a result of work done by WVIP student-attorneys Cody Swearingen ‘17, Taylor Coplin ‘17, Zack Gray ‘18 and Britlyn Seitz ‘18, and supervising attorney Melissa Giggenbach. The students consulted extensively with experts and conducted depositions with the state’s medical expert, trial counsel and trial counsel’s supervisor.
"Overturning this conviction took more than two years and the work of two teams of dedicated clinical law students,” said Giggenbach. “Hopefully, with this success, we can stop wrongful convictions based on faulty and misleading science."
“The work I did with WVIP was some of the most rewarding I’ve done in my life. I’m thankful that the West Virginia justice system was able to see the controversy behind Shaken Baby Syndrome, and more specifically, the constitutional issues that plagued Mr. Dodrill’s trial,” said Swearingen, who is now lawyer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
The West Virginia Innocence Project Law Clinic is funded, in part, by Wilson, Frame & Metheney, PLLC.