PRINCETON — Jurors heard opening statements and witness testimony Tuesday in the trial of a Mercer County man charged who was charged in 2018 with inflicting injuries that left an almost 5-month-old infant blind.
Michael David Coffey of Bluefield was arrested after an incident which allegedly occurred April 11, 2018 in Princeton when he was caring for his then-girlfriend’s infant son, who was about 4 and a half months old at the time. Coffey is not the child’ biological father. An examination at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital later showed that the child had injuries including retinal hemorrhages in both eyes, a skull fracture, a stroke and other broken bones.
Coffey has been charged with child abuse causing a serious bodily injury. The charge, which is a felony, has a possible sentence of two to 10 years in prison, according to the West Virginia Code.
Prosecutor Brian Cochran put a picture of the child, Alexander, on an overhead viewer for the jury to see before starting his opening statement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this case is about a 4 and a half month old baby boy,” Cochran said. “On April 10 and the early morning of April 11, 2018, this child was a normal, happy, innocent baby. On April 11 of 2018, his life changed forever. Forever. This child was the victim of child abuse which caused him horrific, horrific injuries.”
“These injuries are permanent, and they are horrible beyond your imagination,” he continued. “Evidence will show that the damage done to his brain was so horrible, so damaging that he will never be able to see again.”
Alexander is now about 3 years old and functioning like he is 12 to 15 months old, Cochran stated, adding that evidence would show that on April 11, 2018, the injuries occurred “when he was in sole care of the defendant, Michael Coffey.”
Cochran showed the jury a picture of Alexander that was taken on April 11, 2018, which he said showed “that everything was fine.” His mother, Tuesday Earnest, got up for work about 6 a.m. that day and fed and changed him before going to work. She then told Coffey that she was leaving and turned up the baby monitor.
The child’s mother and Coffey exchanged text messages throughout the day and later started arguing with Coffey, who “used language about being frustrated and language that he needed to be able to cool down,” Cochran told the jury.
Alexander’s mother came about between 5:30 and 6 p.m. that day and “noticed that something’s not right,” Cochran said. She took him to the emergency department at Princeton Community Hospital. The physician there checked him for infections and suggested keeping him overnight for observation, but the mother said she already had an appointment with her son’s pediatrician the next day for a regular check up. She was told that she should take him back to the ER if his condition changed.
On April 12, 2018, Earnest took her son to Dr. Jamie Blankenship after calling ahead and moving him appointment up from the afternoon to morning. Blankenship immediately recognized that something was seriously wrong and advised Earnest to take her son back to the hospital, Cochran said. He was later transferred to Carlion Roanoke Memorial Hospital where a CAT scan was performed and the extent of his injuries was revealed.
Cochran said that witnesses’ testimony would give opinions on when the injuries occurred.
“Ladies and gentlemen, when you hear this evidence, once you’re done hearing it, I’m going to ask you, based on the evidence, to find Michael Coffey guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of inflicting horrific injuries on this child,” he said.
In his opening statement, Attorney John Byrd, who is representing Coffey, told the jury that he had watched them while they were looking at Alexander’s photograph and listening to the prosecution’s opening statement. He said that he saw expressions of outrage and pity, but that the jury had to consider the case based on the evidence.
“The easy thing to do is to throw Michael under a bus and walk away,” Byrd stated. “That’s the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to look at the evidence and make a fair and just decision.”
“Only a conviction of someone who is guilty serves to give Alexander justice,” he added.
Byrd said that the defense did not dispute the injuries.
“What we do heavily dispute is who did it and the time frame in which it could have been done,” he said, adding that at least one other person had time to inflict the injuries.
“Michael is innocent until proven guilty,” Byrd stated. “The state must prove this beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Dr. Ricky Bradley, the physician who attended to Alexander at Princeton Community Hospital, said that the baby was “a bit lethargic” when he arrived, and that his main concern was a viral infection and dehydration. Bradley was told that the baby had vomited earlier. A chest X-ray and “maybe a stomach X-ray” was done. His white blood cell count was slightly elevated, and this could have been caused by stress, an infection or vomiting, he stated.
Bradley said while being questioned by attorney Caitlin Flanagan-Morgan, who is also representing Coffey, that he did not have any suspicions, based on the mother and the baby’s behavior, about child abuse. He also said that the baby’s “pupils were reactive,” but did not recall if he had “a fixed gaze.”
Bradley said he was concerned, but added “if I was super concerned, I would have pushed for the child not to go home,” and the mother was following up to a pediatrician, and told her to inform him about the results. The mother was advised to bring him back to the hospital if his condition worsened overnight.
Under a redirect, Cochran asked what treatment Alexander would have received if he had stayed at the hospital overnight. Bradley said the nurses would have called a pediatrician if there was a significant change in his condition.
Dr. Jamie Blankenship, who examined Alexander on April 12, 2018, said he had an appointment about 2 p.m. that day, but his mother called and had it moved to the morning. He was lethargic, “listless,” and was “noticeably uncomfortable.” He did not move unless stimulated, and had a rash on his forehead as well as a bruise on his left brow and left chin, she said when Cochran questioned her.
Blankenship was asked to describe what she witnessed when she saw Alexander during a later appointment when he was about 3 years old. He is still blind from his injuries and has a difficult time eating; he still eats mostly pureed foods. He has “a couple of words. He can say ‘mama’ and dad,’ and he is getting on his hands and knees to crawl, she told Cochran.
When questioned by Flanagan-Morgan, Blankenship said she did not know if any bruising occurred after the baby was taken to PCH the first time.
Earnest testified that her son was well when she and Coffey picked him at the home of his biological father and grandmother. She described how she got ready for work the next day, fed her son, changed him and woke up Coffey.
“When you left, was Alexander OK?” Cochran asked.
“He was a perfectly happy baby,” she replied.
Earnest said that Coffey sent her texts stating that her son had vomited. She stated that when she came home from work, she noticed that he was “lethargic” and did not want to play, adding that he had started laughing the week before, but that night he was not laughing. She took him to PCH after trying to feed him. She said that after visiting the hospital, she stayed up with her son and that his condition did not change.
Cochran asked her if she had done anything to harm her son.
“Tuesday, did you harm Alexander at any time?” he said. “Did you shake him? Did you slam his head against a table or wall? Did you do anything at all on the morning of (April 11) or the night of (April 12) to cause any injuries to Alexander?”
“No, sir,” she replied.
Flanagan-Morgan asked Earnest about a bruise on Alexander and asked “isn’t it true that you were concerned that the biological father’s daughter was holding Alexander too tight?” Earnest replied that it was not.
Earnest was also asked if Coffey had texted her during the day informing her that Alexander did not finish his bottle and another message stating “I can’t even get him to take this bottle now.”
Senior Trooper D.B. Whited with the West Virginia State Police Princeton detachment conducted the initial investigation. Cochran asked Whited about meeting Coffey at Mercer County Child Protective Services. Whited said that Coffey was advised about his rights and voluntarily gave a statement. Coffey said during the interview that the baby vomited after being fed, then vomited again after being given a second bottle three hours later.
Whited said that Coffey had an attorney the second time he was called. Flanagan-Morgan asked if the mother’s emails were not available during the initial investigation, and Whited said that was correct. Whited was also asked if Earnest provided any assistance during the investigation, and Whited replied, “directly to me, no.”
On redirect, Cochran asked Whited if a physician at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, Dr. Randy Rupple, had told him that vomiting would happen “directly after” the incident when Alexander was injured. Whited said that was what the physician had told him. Based on what Coffey said both verbally and in text messages, it could be shown that the vomiting had occurred while Coffey had control of the baby, Cochran said.
The trial continues today before Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope.
— Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org