A former babysitter who served a few months in jail for shaking a 5-month-old boy so forcefully 37 years ago that he suffered permanent brain damage now faces a possible life sentence after his death from those injuries in 2019, at age 35, officials said.
Terry McKirchy, 59, who now lives in Texas, was arrested again on July 2 after a grand jury in Broward County, Florida, indicted her on a first-degree murder charge in the death of Benjamin Dowling, prosecutors said this week.
She was taking care of him at her home in Hollywood, Florida, on July 3, 1984, when he had difficulty breathing, the authorities said. His mother told investigators that she immediately took him to a hospital, where doctors found that he had been shaken with such force that it had severed the blood vessels to his brain.
McKirchy was sentenced to 60 days in jail and probation after pleading no contest in 1985 to charges of attempted murder and aggravated child abuse.
Dowling was left with severe physical and mental disabilities.
Prosecutors in Broward County, Florida, said this week that they had opened a new case after the medical examiner who conducted Dowling’s autopsy in Manatee County, Florida, where he had been living at the time of his death, referred the matter to law enforcement.
Prosecutors had faced scrutiny over their initial handling of the original case, including for comments that one prosecutor who was involved in the plea deal made to The Miami Herald in 1985. That prosecutor, who remains employed by the Broward County State Attorney’s Office, called McKirchy’s sentence “therapeutic” at the time, but offered no further explanation.
Forensic experts considered the passage of time “between the injuries sustained and the death of the victim” when conducting the autopsy and ruled that “the death was directly caused by the injuries from 1984,” the Broward County State Attorney’s Office said in a statement this week. “The facts speak for themselves,” it said, “and this case was presented to the grand jury, which determined that this was a homicide.”
The decision to charge McKirchy with murder while committing or attempting to commit aggravated child abuse followed an intense legal and medical debate over so-called shaken-baby prosecutions. Critics have questioned whether the triad of symptoms associated with those types of cases – subdural and retinal bleeding and brain swelling – is definitive evidence of abuse.
McKirchy, who was in jail in Fort Bend County, Texas, awaiting extradition to Florida, faces up to life in prison if convicted. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported her arrest.
It was not immediately clear if she had a lawyer. The public defender’s office in Broward County, which represented McKirchy in the 1980s, said Tuesday that it had no current record for her in its system.
When she pleaded no contest to attempted murder and aggravated child abuse, McKirchy maintained her innocence.
“I know I didn’t do it,” McKirchy said at the time, according to The Herald. “My conscience is clear. But I can’t deal with it anymore.” She added that people were “looking at me like I’m some kind of demon.”
In a statement released this week through the prosecutor’s office, Dowling’s parents, Rae and Joe Dowling, said that they immediately knew something was wrong with their son after Rae Dowling picked him up from McKirchy’s home on July 3, 1984.
They said that he had later endured many invasive operations, including having metal rods implanted in his spine. When he was 18 months old, they said, he had a feeding tube inserted into his abdomen that he needed for the rest of his life.
“Benjamin never progressed in development beyond a 5 1/2-month-old infant,” the Dowlings said. “Benjamin never crawled, fully rolled over, walked, never talked, never fed himself, he never enjoyed a hamburger or an ice cream cone, he could never tell us when he had an itch or anything hurt. When he cried in pain, we as a family and caregivers had to guess as to what was wrong and hope that we could satisfy his need. Benjamin would never know how much he was loved and could never tell others of his love for them.”
Benjamin Dowling’s autopsy results were not immediately available from the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office, which includes Manatee County. The office did not respond to a request for comment.
The prosecutor who was involved in McKirchy’s plea agreement, Barbara Mitchell, was not made available for comment by the Broward County State Attorney’s Office, which said it had a policy barring prosecutors from making statements outside of court filings and proceedings while a criminal case is ongoing.