Son's death leads to charge of homicide by child abuse

Melissa Anna McKinney

A Johns Island woman was charged with homicide by child abuse after her 5-month-old son died Tuesday, and prosecutors say they will re-examine the previous death of her daughter and a miscarriage.

Melissa Anna McKinney, 21, told investigators that the child was fussy and didn't want to sleep, so she placed a folded blanket over his face so he wouldn't disturb other people in the house, an affidavit said. It said the mother fell asleep with her son lying beside her in the bed, and when she awoke she found him face down under her chest with his face pressed into the mattress.

The baby was taken to Medical University Hospital, where he was revived, but he died the next day, the affidavit said.

It was the third child McKinney has lost in as many years. Authorities said they would take a closer look at the death

of McKinney's 16-day-old daughter in 2005, as well as a miscarriage in 2006.

"We're going to open everything we know of back up and do more investigating, more interviewing," 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Wednesday during a news conference with Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon. "We can't jump to conclusions about the previous incidents because we don't know yet, but certainly it raises more red flags."

Deputies responded to the home where McKinney was staying at the end of Cane Slash Road about 12:30 p.m. Monday after receiving a call about the child being unresponsive. McKinney told them she had been sleeping with her son, David, after leaving her job at a Hess gas station on Maybank Highway about 1 a.m., an incident report says.

The report gives this account of what happened next:

The mother went to bed about a half-hour later. She woke up about 7 a.m., fed David and went back to sleep. At 10 a.m., she woke up and fed the infant a second time, then went back to sleep. The third time she woke up — she couldn't remember the exact time — the child wasn't breathing. She had another person at the house call police.

The Coroner's Office said David died at Medical University Hospital about 8:35 p.m. Tuesday. The cause of death was under investigation, Deputy Coroner Kelly Myers said.

A man at the Cane Slash Road home declined to speak to a reporter about what happened but said McKinney hadn't lived there long.

Deputies originally arrested the mother on a charge of unlawful neglect of a child, but upgraded it after the child died.

Cannon said McKinney gave birth to David while in the Charleston County Detention Center. She had been arrested on an armed-robbery charge in North Charleston in March 2007. Wilson said the charge was dropped after a co-defendant exonerated her.

A newborn girl, Mia, died under similar circumstances to David in July 2005. It happened at a home on Henry Tecklenburg Drive, according to an incident report.

"It was determined that she had rolled over on the child during the night and the child suffocated," Cannon said.

Wilson said an infant-fatality panel of medical and legal experts had looked into that death but found no basis for criminal charges.

The miscarriage the following year happened while McKinney was about five months pregnant, the sheriff said. Investigators had not determined who was the father of any of the children, he said.

Authorities don't think David's death was an accident, but they wouldn't say if they thought it was a case of neglect, abuse or an extreme lack of responsibility.

Rollover deaths happen several times a year in Charleston, often to parents who are unaware of the dangers of sleeping with their infant, said Colleen Boylston with Sweetgrass Pediatrics in North Charleston. In the medical community, they call it co-sleeping.

"We don't recommend co-sleeping at any age for safety concerns," Boylston said.

Younger children run a greater risk, she said. The danger increases if the parent has been using alcohol, pain medication or illegal drugs, or is obese.

"The key is teaching the child to sleep by itself in a safe environment," she said.

Homicide by child abuse carries a sentence of 20 years to life.

Charleston County Magistrate Mary Holmes read the charges against McKinney in court Wednesday night. When she asked McKinney if she would like to make a statement, McKinney said, "Can I plead guilty now?"

The judge's answer was, "No." McKinney will later face a circuit court judge for a bond hearing.

Nadine Parks contributed to this report. Reach Noah Haglund at nhaglund@postandcourier.com or 937-5550.