GREENFIELD — Prosecutors said there is no doubt Mark Barron and Miranda Luker neglected their infant son the night he died.
The couple admitted as much, pleading guilty to neglect charges this week more than three years after their son was found dead in the crib where he’d been left unattended for 11 hours with an adult-sized body pillow.
But the couple will serve no jail time. And the original charge, neglect resulting in death, the highest class of felony, was dropped as part of a plea deal, all because of one word in a medical report that gave prosecutors pause: “undetermined.”
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A person’s manner of death — natural, suicide, homicide or undetermined — helps guide police investigations when a person dies under suspicious circumstances.
Three medical experts who examined the body of 3-month-old Dylan Luker agreed an unsafe sleep position — the boy was found face down in his crib in December 2011 — and his parents’ failure to check on him could have contributed to his death.
But doctors also noted the boy was suffering from pneumonia, and his throat was clogged with mucus when he died, reports state. None went as far as to rule the death a homicide.
As a trial date neared, prosecutors said they were faced with a case they couldn’t win.
Newly elected Prosecutor Brent Eaton inherited the case from his predecessor, Michael Griffin, who brought the case before a grand jury, which indicted the parents on charges of neglect resulting in death.
Eaton said Luker and Barron deserved to be held accountable, but he couldn’t proceed with a charge that held them responsible for their baby’s death, not without the medical reports to back up the claim.
“The evidence supported the finding that they were neglectful,” Eaton said. “… There are at least three … renowned pathologists that looked at this. Each … came to the conclusion that the cause of death here was not determined.”
And so, Luker, 25, and Barron, 26, were offered a deal. They could plead guilty to a low-level felony in exchange for three years on probation.
Police began investigating the pair on Dec. 2, 2011, after Barron dialed 911 to report his son wasn’t breathing.
Luker discovered the baby, who was blue and unresponsive, in his crib around 2:45 p.m. She told police she had last checked on him when she got home from work at 4 a.m. Dylan was sleeping in the crib next to his twin brother, Devon, at the time.
Barron told police he woke up at 8 a.m. but didn’t check on the twins because they weren’t crying. At 11 a.m., Luker propped Devon up in a swing with a bottle so he could feed himself because he was fussing, she said. She never checked on the other baby, police reports state.
Today, Luker has custody of the couple’s remaining two children; the surviving twin brother, who is now 3, and a 16-month-old boy, Eaton said. She no longer lives in Hancock County.
Barron is in prison in Putnamville, serving a five-year sentence for a burglary conviction out of Johnson County.
Luker was pregnant with the couple’s third child when she was arrested. In early 2014, a judge granted her a temporary bond waiver, allowing her to leave the Hancock County Jail to give birth to her son after county officials fretted for weeks about how much her medical expenses would cost taxpayers if she stayed behind bars.
Because Luker was unable to pay her $2,500 bond, she was forced to return to jail days after the boy’s birth. All told, she served 122 days in jail, which prosecutors say factored into their decision not to ask the judge to sentence her to more time.
Griffin, who said the case was one of the most difficult of his career, expressed disappointment in its outcome. He said he is confident the case could have been won on the original charges selected by the grand jury.
“We took it to a grand jury because we recognized, as well, that there could be different points of view on this; but once we put it before the community, … the community’s choice was for this to be charged,” Griffin said. “This one comes down to whether you’re willing to prosecute a case that has some uncertainty in it. If this were a slam-dunk kind of a system, then there are so many cases that would never be prosecuted.”
Griffin said the decision to offer two neglectful parents a deal on a lesser charge dishonors their dead child.
“The only reason that we’re here is because a child died,” he said. “The way this case turned out, it looks like that the child’s death doesn’t matter.”
The decision to change the course of the prosecution was not taken lightly, Eaton said.
But prosecutors have an ethical duty to pursue only the charges supported by the evidence, and that evidence suggested the child might have died anyway because he was ill, Eaton said.
“We will always do what we can to seek out justice in these cases,” he said. “Here, the evidence determined what we can and can’t do.”
Luker’s defense attorney, Randy Sorrell, said the case has been excruciating, both for the parents and the attorneys who represented them.
“There are no winners; everybody’s a loser,” he said. “Parents lost their baby.”
But he agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment of the case; medical reports left too much room for interpretation.
Barron’s attorney, Jim McNew, did not return a call for comment.
Deputy prosecutor John Keiffner, who led the prosecutor’s case, said there’s a difference between his professional obligations and his personal beliefs.
“There’s zero question that both of these two neglected both of these children,” he said. “Do I think Dylan Luker would still be alive had they been better parents? Personally, I think probably so.”