Wrongfully Accused Mother Pursues Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Mississippi Officials

Jocelyn McLean was wrongfully charged and jailed for her newborn daughter’s death.

06.22.22 By Innocence Staff

A judge's gavel and block. (Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unsplash)

A judge's gavel and block. (Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm/Unsplash)

(New York, New York — June 22, 2022) Jocelyn McLean, a mother who was wrongfully arrested, prosecuted for the capital murder of her 8-day-old daughter, and detained without bail for nearly a year, has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Tallahatchie County and Mississippi officials. Ms. McLean was charged with murder after the Mississippi medical examiner’s office falsely claimed her newborn daughter’s death was a homicide. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

Ms. McLean’s ordeal captured national attention this weekend, with the publication of a New York Times feature, Failed Autopsies, False Arrests: A Risk of Bias in Death Examinations.”

A further detail and as yet unreported aspect of the case is that, contrary to the deputy medical examiner’s implausible denial that he had seen the ER records prior to his final autopsy report in 2017, Coroner Ginger Meriwether’s Answer to the Complaint declares that she hand-delivered the relevant ER records on the same day in September 2016 that she brought the deceased newborn to the medical examiner’s office prior to the autopsy. 

In September 2016, Ms. McLean prematurely gave birth to a baby girl, Emberly. Due to medical complications, Emberly was hospitalized at the University of Mississippi Medical Center for six days after her birth. A day after her release, her mother rushed Emberly to the nearby Tallahatchie General Hospital because she was not eating and was gasping for breath. After diagnosing Emberly with acute respiratory distress, medical personnel tried desperately to save her life with heroic medical interventions. The hospital staff was joined in the effort by the emergency flight team from Memphis Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center, which had been summoned to airlift her for specialized treatment. Tragically, this extensive effort was in vain and Emberly died at Tallahatchie Hospital four hours after her arrival. 

Ms. McLean’s devastation was compounded when she was later arrested, charged with capital murder, separated from her other children, and incarcerated in the Tallahatchie County jail for 11 months because the Mississippi medical examiner’s office falsely claimed that Emberly’s death was a homicide caused by “[b]lunt force injuries with features of strangulation.”

Racial Bias in Forensic Pathology

This false claim was made on the official autopsy report by former Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. J. Brent Davis, which was also reviewed and approved by two other pathologists, former Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Mark LeVaughn and former-Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Liam Funte, and repeated on the amended death certificate by the County Coroner. These claims were made despite the fact that Emberly’s body and the medical records of her short life clearly demonstrated that all the injuries on her body were not the result of a murder stemming from child abuse, but instead resulted from the extensive efforts by medical personnel to save her life as she died from natural causes. An independent expert in forensic pathology, with decades of experience, later reviewed the autopsy report and described it as “the worst autopsy” she has ever seen.  

Four days before she was to go on trial, the medical examiner’s office finally admitted it was wrong and the capital murder charges against Ms. McLean were dropped — after she had spent nearly a year in jail, had been subject to ankle monitoring for more than a year, and had suffered severe emotional distress.

Ms. McLean is Black, while the three former forensic pathologists at the Mississippi medical examiner’s office who issued and signed off on the autopsy report are white. 

A recent study found that forensic pathologists were more likely to rule the death of a child a homicide rather than an accident when the child is Black versus white.

“I wonder if the Mississippi medical examiner’s office would have done this if the newborn had been white and her mother middle-class,” said Tara Lang of Charleston, Mississippi, one of Ms. McLean’s attorneys. “Unfortunately, racial bias is a fact of life in our criminal legal system. This grieving mother should not have been jailed for a crime that never occurred.”

“Every forensic pathologist in America, without exception, is expected to review the medical records leading up to a newborn’s death. Davis’ willful blindness to the sad but naturally caused death intentionally inflicted additional and needless torture on a young mother enduring the grief and trauma of losing her newborn daughter.” said Peter Neufeld, co-founder and special counsel of the Innocence Project, which also represents Ms. McLean in this lawsuit.

“The Mississippi medical examiner’s office has been plagued by serious problems for a long time,” said Rob McDuff of Jackson, Mississippi, another of Ms. McLean’s attorneys. “Instead of conducting a careful analysis of this tragic death, these pathologists falsely labeled this a homicide, which led to these bogus charges and eleven months in jail for this innocent woman. They should be held accountable.”

False and Misleading Scientific Evidence       

Former Mississippi Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. J. Brent Davis was forced to admit the truth: Ms. McLean’s newborn baby was not murdered, and each and every injury that he catalogued in his autopsy report was attributable to medical interventions by hospital personnel.

Those numerous invasive and traumatic medical interventions to save Emberly’s life were obvious to Dr. Davis when he conducted the autopsy the day after the newborn died in 2016. He photographed the condition of the baby’s body reflecting the presence of the extensive hospital equipment and dressings and specifically noted in his report that she had a catheter in her leg, an endotracheal tube in her mouth, bandages on her neck and forehead, electrocardiograph pads on her body, and gauze taped to her arm. But he declined to follow fundamental scientific principles and basic professional standards requiring evaluation and reporting of recent medical history as reflected in hospital records. His autopsy report never mentioned them, nor the fact that the virology culture was positive for the presence of a virus which could have contributed to the newborn’s death. 

When Dr. Davis recanted his false claim of homicide, years after the autopsy itself, he claimed he had just seen the hospital records for the first time. That appears to have been false. Indeed, Ginger Meriwether, the Tallahatchie coroner named as a co-defendant in Ms. McLean’s lawsuit, has asserted in court filings that she gave Emberly’s emergency room records to the medical examiner’s office the very same day she presented Emberly for an autopsy. Regardless, Dr. Davis clearly knew from the equipment and medical dressing he observed on Emberly’s tiny body — she weighed only five pounds — during the autopsy that she had been in the hospital immediately before her death and that extensive medical interventions occurred.

The misapplication of forensic sciences is a leading cause of wrongful conviction. Many of these miscarriages of justice are the result of cognitive and, in particular, racial bias, infecting the conclusions of forensic experts practicing in highly subjective forensic disciplines. The cause and manner of death determinations made by forensic pathologists like Dr. Davis and his colleagues at the Mississippi state medical examiner’s office are unregulated, subjective, and have led to unjust prosecutions and wrongful convictions.  

“Fortunately, the Innocence Project is committed not only to seeking redress for the grave constitutional violations and injuries Ms. McLean suffered here but also to shining a bright light on improper practices of medical examiners that lead to wrongful arrests or conviction of innocent defendants,” said Maura Barry Grinalds, who is serving as pro bono co-counsel for Ms. McLean.

“This case is but one egregious example of this all-too-common reality for criminal defendants,” added Edward L. Tulin, who is also serving as pro bono co-counsel. 

Ms. McLean’s civil rights lawsuit is based on violations of her constitutional rights to be free from false arrest and fabricated evidence, as well as state law claims for malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. If not for these unconstitutional and unlawful actions, Ms. McLean would never have been arrested and charged with capital murder. The Innocence Project, Tara Lang of the T&G Lang Law Firm in Charleston Mississippi, Rob McDuff of Jackson Mississippi, and the Mississippi Center for Justice, along with pro bono co-counsels Edward L. Tulin of Gish PLLC and Maura Barry Grinalds, both of New York, are representing Ms. McLean in her lawsuit against former Mississippi Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. J. Brent Davis, former Mississippi Chief Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn, former Mississippi Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Liam Funte, Tallahatchie County Coroner Ginger Meriwether, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Joseph Mauney, and Tallahatchie County. The Case Number is 3:22-cv-00033-DPJ-FKB (N.D. Miss.).

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