Accident or murder?

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By Tia Lynn Ivey managing editor

A murder trial concerning the death of a baby boy began in Morgan County last Monday. Donald Justin Lee, 23, pled innocent to multiple counts related to the death of Brantley Garret Farmer, a nine-month-old baby. Lee, the boyfriend of the child’s mother, was caring for the child alone at the couple’s Aqua Road residence, before rushing the unresponsive baby to a neighbor’s house for help. Prosecutors accused Lee of shaking the child to death in March of 2014. In June of 2014, the grand jury issued indictments on Lee for one count of murder, three counts felony murder, one count cruelty to children in the first degree, one count aggravated assault and one count aggravated battery. Stephen Bradley, district attorney for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, presented the overview of the State’s case against Lee to the Jury early Tuesday morning, arguing that evidence strongly points to “violent shaking” as the cause of Farmer’s death. “You are going to find out what the evidence is in this case that resulted in his death, and that it came as result of Lee’s actions. Pay close attention… in the end, you will be as convinced as we are that Justin Lee is guilty as charged.” But the defense argued Lee’s innocence.

“This case–it’s heartbreaking. It’s tragic and it’s sad and it’s painful, but it’s not a crime, it’s an accident…This was an accident. It wasn’t murder and Justin Lee is not guilty,” said Foss Hodges, one of Lee’s defense attorneys during opening arguments. Both the prosecution and defense promised the jury would hear expert medical testimony supporting their claims throughout the trial. While the prosecution maintained that Farmer died as a result of violent shaking at the hands of Lee, the defense admitted Lee briefly shook the baby, but not severely enough to harm the child.

The defense argued that Lee tripped and fell while carrying a wide-awake and alert Farmer and accidentally dropped the baby on his head. The prosecution emphasized that Lee initially lied to police, when he first told them the baby had fallen off a couch. Lee eventually admitted to shaking the baby and said he tripped and fell, causing him to drop the baby afterwards. The defense argued that Lee was terrified, knowing that shaking the baby at all was wrong, but that the baby’s death was not caused by it. “He knew it was wrong because it could hurt a baby if you shake a baby,” said Hodges. “But the evidence will show it didn’t hurt the baby in this case. What hurt and what ultimately killed Brantley was when he hit the floor when he accidentally dropped him.” The prosecution and defense will present their case in more detail in the coming days. In the end, the jury will have to decide if the evidence points to a murder or an accidental death, as Lee’s future hangs in the balance.

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