A SLED agent's alleged doctoring of documents for a pending trial forced prosecutors last year to drop charges against a 23-year-old babysitter accused of fatally abusing a 4-month-old while high on drugs, according to documents released this week.
The State Law Enforcement Division documents, released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Post and Courier, provide further insight into the case that led to senior Lowcountry agent Michele China's November firing for misconduct.
SLED officials ended her 11-year career with the agency after determining China had lied about altering a memo detailing her interview with a suspect in a 2004 child death case in Hampton County, records show.
Investigators said she added an alleged confession to the memo last year before the case was to go to trial, implicating a babysitter in the smothering of the infant.
When confronted by investigators, China maintained the confession was real. But prosecutors said her actions clouded the case and left them no choice but to dismiss a homicide by child abuse charge against Melissa Latrell Daughtry of Estill.
Daughtry was babysitting a 4-month-old girl at her home, about 30 miles west of Walterboro, when the child died Oct. 15, 2004. The baby's name is redacted from the SLED documents, and the Hampton County Coroner's Office refused to release the name, claiming state law prevents them from identifying minors who die.
Jay Bender, attorney for the S.C. Press Association, called their claim "absurd."
"There is no such law," he said. "This is just another example of someone in public office making crap up."
Daughtry was accused of abusing the child, breaking the baby's leg and bruising her face, chin and buttocks, according to an arrest affidavit. Instead of seeking medical help, Daughtry fell asleep after using cocaine and marijuana, woke up about noon and discovered the baby was not breathing, according to the affidavit.
The coroner pronounced the child dead at the scene.
China and agent James Freeman investigated the case for two months before Daughtry acknowledged striking the little girl after the baby went into a crying fit on the night of Oct. 14, 2004, according to a SLED memo. Daughtry told the agents she slapped the infant, grabbed her chin while trying to feed her and punched her on the backside, according to a SLED memo.
That admission helped China secure a warrant for Daughtry's arrest in January 2005 on the homicide charge, records show.
From here, the documents indicate the case played out this way:
After several months passed, China asked prosecutors with the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office why Daughtry was choosing to go to trial. It made more sense for her to plead guilty, she suggested, because Daughtry had already confessed to the crime.
Prosecutors noted that the investigative report contained no mention of a confession, nor did the affidavit used to establish probable cause for Daughtry's arrest. They told her to submit an addendum to her report as soon as possible.
The Solicitor's Office had still not received that addendum some seven years later when another prosecutor reviewed the case in September and saw the charges against Daughtry were still outstanding.
China pledged to get the information together as soon as possible and a short time later sent her superiors a copy of a January 2005 memo detailing her interview with Daughtry. Her captain noted that the memo contained the same language as one already in the investigative file with one exception: four lines near the end contained a confession in which Daughtry allegedly admitted to smothering the crying infant with a pillow.
SLED conducted a forensic computer exam of the discs on which China's memo had been stored. Investigators determined that a copy of the 2005 memo had been altered on Sept. 29 to include the alleged confession.
When confronted, China initially denied altering the document. She later admitted making the changes but maintained she was only amending the record to reflect a confession that should have been in there to begin with. She also insisted the confession was real.
"I had no intention of trying to give incorrect information," she said in a written statement to investigators. "I still attest that the statement is true. I have not altered the truth of Melissa's statement to me."
China stated she was alone in the interview room with Daughtry when the suspect made the oral confession, but she told Freeman, her fellow investigator, immediately afterward. She said she was not sure why it didn't end up in the original memo but speculated that her supervisor deleted it because he often modified her reports.
Internal investigators spoke with Freeman, now retired, and he confirmed that China told him about Daughtry's confession on the day they interviewed her. He was out of the room when the confession reportedly occurred. He told investigators he never noticed it was missing from the interview memo China submitted.
Investigators also tracked down her supervisor at the time, now-retired Lt. Kenny Mears, who told them he didn't recall a confession by Daughtry and would never have deleted it from the memo, nor told her to omit it from the document.
Faced with uncertainty in the case, prosecutors dropped the charges against Daughtry on Nov. 8., 2013, court records show. SLED Chief Mark Keel fired China 10 days later.
"You lied about your actions during the course of an official investigation," Keel wrote in her termination letter. "Your conduct is inexcusable, as a SLED agent must be honest and forthright in all dealings. ... Your conduct in this investigation has not only compromised your credibility as a SLED agent but reflects negatively on this Division."
Daughtry does not have a listed phone number, and neither she nor her public defender could be reached for comment.
China continues to adamantly deny any wrongdoing and is appealing her "wrongful termination" to the state employee grievance committee, her attorney, Kevin Kearse of Moncks Corner, said. He declined to discuss specifics while the appeal is pending.
"We are confident that a fair and an unbiased review in this matter will provide agent China with the proper redress and exoneration she so justly deserves," he said.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the case while China's grievance in pending. He said only that SLED had contacted area prosecutors' about the cases she worked on.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone has said his office is reviewing other cases China was involved in to check for possible problems. He could not be reached for comment Friday to discuss the status of that review.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who oversees prosecutions in Charleston and Berkeley counties, has also asked her staff to alert defense attorneys if they come across cases that have China as a witness. So far, she said, she has not been notified of any local problems related to the former agent.