Kimberly Smalls has waited a decade to see justice done in the killing of her infant daughter. But now the lead investigator has been fired, the case is in disarray and Smalls has to see the accused killer walking around town since the charges were thrown out.
Smalls, a 35-year-old mother of four from Estill, said she can't understand how this could have happened in a case she thought was airtight, sealed with what authorities considered a damning confession.
At the very least, she said, the State Law Enforcement Division should reopen its investigation in an effort to find the evidence needed to make someone answer for the 2004 killing of her 4-month-old daughter, Trinity. But no one seems willing to help, she said.
"An innocent baby got beaten to death and nobody is to blame?" she said. "They're trying to sweep this under the rug like nothing happened. This is wrong. Something needs to be done."
Trinity's death in Hampton County was at the heart of an investigation that resulted in the firing late last year of senior State Law Enforcement Division agent Michele China. An internal SLED probe determined China doctored documents in the case to include an alleged confession from the woman charged in Trinity's death, her baby sitter, Melissa Daughtry, documents show.
The case unraveled after the discovery, prosecutors said, leading to the dismissal of a homicide by child abuse charge against Daughtry.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who oversees prosecutions in Hampton County, said he appreciates Smalls' anger and it is shared by others involved in the case. But he believes prosecutors and SLED made the appropriate moves once a problem with China's work was discovered, he said.
"This was a bad situation, but SLED did exactly what they should have done when they learned of this and nobody made any effort to sweep this under the rug," he said.
No one wanted to see the case tossed the curb, Stone said, but there wasn't enough evidence to go forward once China's involvement was compromised, leaving her testimony and casework unusable unless it could be independently verified. That didn't happen, he said.
"I don't think anyone was happy with this outcome," he said. "But we did not have enough evidence to prosecute the case without Agent China and she, unfortunately, was not someone we were willing to put on the witness stand."
Stone said two prosecutors and a victim advocate from his office met with Smalls to explain the situation before charges against Daughtry were dropped. Though the case is now dormant, it can be reopened at any time if new information or evidence emerges, Stone said.
SLED officials agreed.
"If any new information comes in, we will certainly look at it," agent Thom Berry, a SLED spokesman, said.
China's attorney, Kevin Kearse, has steadfastly denied she did anything wrong. China, who is appealing her dismissal, maintained the confession was real when confronted last year, SLED documents show.
Daughtry, who has an unlisted phone number, could not be reached for comment this week.
Smalls said SLED told her years ago that Daughtry had admitted to beating Trinity and later confessed to smothering the child with a pillow. The latter confession is what China added last year to her official account of a 2005 interview with the suspect, an admission she allegedly heard while alone in a room with Daughtry, SLED records show.
Smalls said knowing a confession was in hand brought her comfort during the long wait for the case to come to trial. "I didn't push it because I knew they had her," she said. "Now, she is out walking free. I'm so very, very upset."
Smalls is a single mom who works at a gas station to make ends meet. She grew up in Estill and had known Daughtry for years. She considered her a friend. So when Smalls needed a sitter while she attended a job fair in October 2004, she turned to Daughtry, who lived just down the street, she said.
"I never would have left my baby there if I thought there was a threat," she said. "She had kids of her own, so I never thought she would hurt my baby."
Smalls said everything seemed fine when she went to Daughtry's house that evening after the job fair. Daughtry told her Trinity was fast asleep and suggested Smalls leave her for the night rather than wake her, Smalls said.
"We lived right by each other, so I figured I could be right there if something happened," she said. "I thought she would be safe."
Daughtry was accused of abusing the child during the stay, 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.
Smalls was said she in a state of shock when she saw Trinity. The child was stiff, her mouth locked in an open position, she said.
"I couldn't close it," she said. "Her mouth just stayed open like she had died screaming."
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, the memo stated.
Smalls questioned why authorities couldn't go forward with abuse or neglect charges even if the confession regarding the child's smothering was thrown out.
Stone said the case was too tainted to proceed. "We are left with an officer we cannot verify and we are not willing to vouch for, so any evidence she produced is suspect as well."
That leaves Smalls cold. She has seen Daughtry around town but kept her distance, not wanting to jeopardize the case. But it doesn't sit right with her.
"It's hard. I'm depressed," she said. "I just need justice for my baby."