By Tia Lynn Ivey
A local man was found not guilty on multiple murder charges, but was convicted of aggravated assault instead, receiving a 20-year jail sentence, issued by Morgan County Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell. The jury found Donald Justin Lee, 23, guilty of only one out seven charges related to the death of 9-month-old Brantley Garrett Farmer, who died in June of 2014, after being in the sole care of Lee, the then boyfriend of the child’s mother.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution maintained that Brantley Farmer died as a result of violent shaking at the hands of Lee. The defense admitted Lee briefly shook the baby, but argued that the shaking was not severe enough to harm the child. The defense maintained 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 authorities that 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.
Both the defense and prosecution produced multiple medical experts supporting each side’s claims as to what actually caused Farmer’s death.
The prosecution argued that the baby’s injuries were consistent with Shaking Baby Syndrome and other signs of purposeful abuse, presumably committed by Lee. The defense argued the medical evidence pointed to an accidental death.
One of the prosecution’s primary witnesses was Dr. Lora Darrisaw, Director of Pediatric Forensic Pathology at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), who conducted Brantley Farmer’s autopsy.
“I was able to determine a manner of death,” said Darrisaw on the stand. ”I determined the manner of death to be homicide.” Darrisaw testified that Brantley’s head injuries were consistent with a homicide.
But the defense called four medical experts to disprove the prosecution’s interpretation of events. Among the defense’s witnesses was Dr. Mark Shuman, an expert in forensic pathologist who specialized in the area of head trauma. Shuman came to a different conclusion than the prosecution’s medical experts as to the manner of Brantley Farmer’s death after examining his medical records, autopsy report, and segments of Lee’s interrogation and indictment.
“I believe that the circumstances given are most consistent with an accident,” testified Shuman. “They are not consistent with a shaking…”
Shuman argued that while shaking a baby can be fatal, one would expect to observe a different set of injuries than those incurred by Brantley Farmer.
“Shaking with enough force would not cause a primary brain injury…but whiplash, resulting in a neck injury, which is not what we have here, we have a head injury,” said Shuman.
During the closing arguments, defense lawyer Bob Rubin implored the jury to find Lee not guilty of all charges.
“It’s a sad case, but not every tragedy is a crime,” said Rubin, who reminded the jury of the four medical experts whose testimony supported the defense claims. “The truth of this case is that Justin Lee is not guilty of these charges…It was an accident.”
Stephen Bradley, District Attorney for the Ocmulgee Judicial Court, urged the jury to decide differently during closing arguments.
“He’s guilty,” said Bradley. “We know he is a liar…He’s the only person who could have caused these injuries to this child.” Bradley argued that Lee flew into a rage because the baby’s crying interrupted his video games and attempt to make a “Hot Pocket” for lunch. The prosecution maintains that Lee violently shook the baby and possibly threw the baby down, causing the child’s death.
“We ask you to find justice, seek truth, bring truth, and convict him the way it’s done in courts all across this country,” said Bradley.
After a week-long trial, the jury began deliberating on Friday, April 15 at approximately 3:30 p.m. and rendered their verdict shortly after 11 p.m. that same day. After hearing from Lee’s family Judge Trammell sentenced Lee to 20 years with credit for the two years time he has served at the Morgan County Detention Center.