Woman Charged with Murder After Man Shaken as 35-Year-Old Baby Dies
Terry McKirchy was arrested following an indictment in Broward County, Florida, in the 2019 death of Benjamin Dowling, who was severely disabled after his parents abandoned him in her care in 1984.
A former babysitter who served a few months in prison for shaking a 5-month-old boy with such force 37 years ago that he sustained permanent brain damage now faces a possible life sentence following his death in 2019 at the age of 35 from those injuries, authorities said.
Terry McKirchy, 59, who now resides in Texas, was arrested again on July 2 following the indictment of her on a first-degree murder charge in the death of Benjamin Dowling by a grand jury in Broward County, Fla., prosecutors said this week.
On July 3, 1984, she was caring for him at her home in Hollywood, Fla., when he developed breathing difficulties, authorities said. His mother told investigators that she rushed him to the hospital, where doctors discovered that he had been shaken with such force that the blood vessels to his brain had been severed.
Ms. McKirchy was sentenced to 60 days in prison and probation in 1985 after pleading not guilty to attempted murder and aggravated child abuse charges.
Mr. Dowling suffered severe physical and mental disabilities as a result of his ordeal.
Prosecutors in Broward County, Fla., announced this week that they had opened a new case following a referral to law enforcement by the medical examiner who conducted Mr. Dowling's autopsy in Manatee County, Fla., where he was living at the time of his death.
Prosecutors had come under fire for their initial handling of the case, including comments made to The Miami Herald in 1985 by one prosecutor involved in the plea deal. At the time, that prosecutor, who is still employed by the Broward County State Attorney's Office, described Ms. McKirchy's sentence as "therapeutic," but provided no additional explanation.
When conducting the autopsy, forensic experts considered the time span "between the injuries sustained and the victim's death" and determined that "the death was directly caused by the 1984 injuries," the Broward County State Attorney's Office said in a statement this week. “The facts speak for themselves,” the statement continued, “and this case was presented to a grand jury, which determined that this was a homicide.”
Ms. McKirchy was charged with murder for committing or attempting to commit aggravated child abuse following a protracted legal and medical debate over so-called shaken-baby prosecutions. Critics have questioned whether the triad of symptoms associated with such cases — subdural and retinal bleeding, as well as brain swelling — constitutes conclusive evidence of abuse.
Ms. McKirchy, who was detained in Fort Bend County, Texas, pending extradition to Florida, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. Her arrest was reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
It was not immediately clear whether she was represented by a lawyer. The Broward County public defender's office, which represented Ms. McKirchy in the 1980s, said Tuesday that it did not have a current record of her in its system.
Ms. McKirchy maintained her innocence when she pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and aggravated child abuse.
According to The Herald, Ms. McKirchy stated at the time, "I am certain I did not do it." “I have a clear conscience. However, I am unable to deal with it any longer.” She continued, "People were looking at me as if I were some kind of demon."
Mr. Dowling's parents, Rae and Joe Dowling, stated in a statement released this week by the prosecutor's office that they immediately recognized something was wrong with their son after Ms. Dowling picked him up from Ms. McKirchy's home on July 3, 1984.
They stated that he later underwent numerous invasive procedures, including the implantation of metal rods in his spine. They stated that when he was 18 months old, he had a feeding tube inserted into his abdomen, which he would require for the remainder of his life.
“Benjamin never developed beyond the stage of a 52-month-old infant,” the Dowlings stated. “Benjamin never crawled, fully rolled over, or walked; he never spoke; he never fed himself; he never ate a hamburger or an ice cream cone; and he could never communicate with us when he had an itch or was in pain. When he cried out in pain, we as a family and caregivers had to make educated guesses about what was wrong and hope we could meet his need. Benjamin would have no idea how much he was loved and would be incapable of communicating his feelings to others.”
The District Twelve Medical Examiner's Office, which includes Manatee County, did not immediately release Benjamin Dowling's autopsy results. The office did not return a message seeking comment.
Barbara Mitchell, the prosecutor who was involved in Ms. McKirchy's plea agreement, was not available for comment by the Broward County State Attorney's Office, which stated that it had a policy prohibiting prosecutors from making statements outside of court filings and proceedings during the pendency of a criminal case.