Taken from the National Registry of Exonerations: At 6:58 p.m. on September 30, 2009, Michael Griffin brought his infant daughter, Naviah Griffin, to the emergency room at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan.
He said that Naviah, who was seven months old, had fallen out of her motorized swing in an upstairs bedroom. Griffin said he had heard a thud, rushed to the room, and found his daughter on the floor, unresponsive and bleeding from her lip.
At the hospital, Dr. Samantha O’Broin examined Naviah and saw the girl was struggling to breathe and reacting in a manner that suggested a brain injury. She admitted Naviah to the intensive care unit (ICU) and ordered a computerized tomography (CT) scan, which showed a minor bruise, known as a hematoma, on the right front of her brain. The doctors decided to keep Naviah in the ICU and monitor her condition to see whether the bruise would heal itself.
That didn’t happen. By the next morning, Naviah had a major hematoma, requiring a craniotomy to relieve the pressure on her brain. Several hours after the surgery, at 1:10 p.m., Naviah was pronounced dead.
Prior to Naviah’s death, officers with the Flint Police Department interviewed Griffin for four hours about the child’s injuries. He said that Naviah was alone in an upstairs bedroom while he played video games downstairs. Just after he found Naviah unconscious, Alecia Patton, Naviah’s mother, returned home, and they brought Naviah to the hospital.
Dr. Alecia Wilson, a medical examiner with Genesee County, performed the autopsy. Her initial findings said the cause of death was “abusive head injury.” Wilson’s report said she performed the autopsy at 9 a.m. on October 1. That was impossible, as it was four hours before Naviah died.
Griffin, who was 19 years old, was arrested in late October 2009, and charged with felony murder and first-degree child abuse. Six months after Naviah’s death, Wilson issued a final report that said the death was a homicide but did not say how Naviah received her fatal injuries.
Prior to Griffin’s trial in Genesee County Circuit Court, his court-appointed attorney, Sheldon Siegel, successfully petitioned the court for funds to hire an expert witness on child deaths because the state’s case relied heavily on testimony by the doctors who treated Naviah and performed and prepared her autopsy.
According to later filings, Siegel contacted a forensic pathologist for a consult, but that doctor wasn’t available. Griffin went to trial on July 20, 2010, without his own expert witness.
O’Broin, the emergency room doctor, testified that Naviah’s injuries were severe and also inconsistent with injuries she had seen from other short falls. On cross-examination, she conceded that in typical abuse cases, the victims had other visible injuries.
Dr. Brian Nolan, a physician in the hospital’s pediatric ICU, testified that Naviah’s head injuries were more consistent with what he would have observed from a car accident rather than a short fall. He had not treated Naviah; he had observed her surgery. He also testified that child victims of abuse usually have more injuries than Naviah displayed.
Dr. Gregory Casey, a trauma surgeon who helped with Naviah’s craniotomy, testified about her treatment. He said children’s brains are “a little bit more malleable, so they can give a little bit more. He also said, “You have to generate some fairly significant force to have a child with either a skull fracture or a major hematoma.”
Dr. Urebdi Mullangi, a radiologist, testified about CT scans taken of Naviah in March 2009, when she was five weeks old and fell off a couch. Those scans did not disclose any injuries. Mullangi did not testify about the two CT scans taken on September 30 and October 1. The first scan showed only a minor hematoma; the major hematoma was found in the second scan, and apparently developed overnight.
Wilson, who performed the autopsy, testified that she changed Naviah’s cause of death after reviewing scientific papers and consulting with Dr. Rudy Castellani, a neuropathologist. She said that a short fall could not have caused Naviah’s injuries. Wilson also said that there was subgaleal bleeding, between the scalp and the skull, prior to the craniotomy, but she could not quantify the extent of the bleeding.
Castellani had examined Naviah’s eyes and brain, which were later destroyed. He testified that Naviah showed a head wound that occurred at least two weeks prior to September 30, 2009. He also said he found evidence of retinal hemorrhaging. Both the wound and the hemorrhaging were signs of abuse, he said.
Patton testified that she was not concerned about Griffin as a caregiver for their daughter.
Griffin testified and said he did not abuse his daughter or cause her fatal injuries.
Prosecutors were allowed to introduce evidence that Naviah had fallen off the couch and out of the swing several times earlier while under Griffin’s care. They were also allowed to introduce evidence of a past act of domestic violence in an incident where Griffin broke a window at Patton’s apartment. In addition, during cross-examination, prosecutors were allowed to ask Griffin about his employment status at the time of Naviah’s death.
Griffin was then unemployed, and prosecutors used that evidence to suggest his lack of a job affected him emotionally, causing him to resent Patton and take out that resentment on his daughter. (A police officer had testified that Griffin had said during his interview that if Patton had come straight home from the store rather than going to visit a friend, “none of us would be sitting here right now.”)
The jury convicted Griffin of felony murder and first-degree child abuse on July 23, 2010. Griffin later received a sentence of life in prison.
He appealed his conviction in 2011, arguing there had been insufficient evidence and that the trial judge erred in allowing evidence of his employment status, Naviah’s previous fall from the couch, and the window incident. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions on October 18, 2011.
On May 21, 2021, Griffin’s attorneys with the Mike Morse Law Firm filed a motion for a new trial. The motion claimed that Siegel had been ineffective in his representation by failing to retain an expert witness and that a new review of Naviah’s medical records by two experts suggested that it was uncertain that the child died from abusive head trauma.
Dr. Ljubisa J. Dragovic, the chief medical examiner in neighboring Oakland County, said in a report that none of Naviah’s injuries proved abuse. He said that the testimony about Naviah’s subgaleal bleeding was misleading because the bleeding could have been caused by the craniotomy.
Dr. Julie Mack, a radiologist with a certificate in pediatric radiology, said her review showed an inconsistency in the state’s narrative of events. In her opinion, the major bleeding found on October 1 was not directly caused by Naviah’s injury the day before. Instead, it could have been due to a prior injury.
“Importantly, this finding means that any argument that the severity of the bleeding rules out a short fall is baseless as the actual injury caused by the fall was so minor that the treating physicians thought it was clinically insignificant and did not need surgery,” the motion said. “It cannot then be claimed that the major bleed was caused by abuse when the initial scan only showed the minor bleed.”
At the time of Griffin’s trial, the science behind “Shaken Baby Syndrome” was already being questioned, as a growing body of research showed that the markers for the diagnosis—retinal hemorrhaging, brain bleeding, and brain injuries—could be due to illnesses and accidental injuries. Siegel, whose law license had been suspended in 2013, should have had no trouble finding an expert witness to help present a more vigorous defense, the motion said.
“Had trial counsel done so, he would have been able to attack the State’s case in its entirety by demonstrating that the State’s experts’ conclusions were incorrect and that Naviah’s injuries were consistent with Mr. Griffin’s repeated and unwavering testimony,” the motion said.
At an evidentiary hearing, Mack and Dragovic testified about their review of Naviah’s medical records. On March 24, 2023, prior to the testimony of a third witness, a pediatric neurologist, the state waived its objection to Griffin’s motion, and Judge Elizabeth Kelly vacated the convictions.
Griffin was released from prison on May 3, 2023. The state dismissed the charges on September 13, 2023.
– Ken Otterbourg