The whole focus of this article is wrong. Many mothers, especially non-substance abusing nursing moms, sleep with their babies with no problems. The problem here is an impaired, drug-addicted father who was granted visitation with a newborn. Had this moron not smothered this infant, it seems very likely he would have neglected or abused this infant in some other way. But THAT story is not being told here, is it?
Nor is it mentioned that babies don't benefit in any way, shape, or form from overnight visitation. They benefit from consistent, loving care in the hands of their primary caregiver. But that story is being told here either. Why?
Bedtime turned deadly for infants: Tragic accident or is it a crime?
11:00 PM, May. 21, 2011
Written by Travis Griggs
Bleary-eyed and sleepy, David "Hamilton" Cook awoke at 5:30 a.m. last Sept. 3 to feed formula to his 2-month-old baby, Hayden.
That was the last thing he would recall when Santa Rosa County sheriff's officers interviewed him the next day.
When he got up three hours later, at 8:30 a.m., his blond, blue-eyed baby, who weighed 14 pounds, was dead. He was lying on a futon, his face turned to the side between a pillow and a brown blanket.
The Medical Examiner's Officer would rule the death an accidental asphyxiation as a result of the baby being unable to breathe as he pressed up to the pillow and blanket.
Cook, a Navarre resident who was then 21, was separated and living apart from his wife, Kristin Price-Morgan, then 17, at the time of the baby's death.
It was the second time the young father had kept his son overnight, Price-Morgan said. She said she had insisted the baby sleep in a crib while staying with him.
Cook was tearful as he recounted to officers that he didn't put the baby in the crib, according to a sheriff's report. Instead, he said, he must have fallen asleep with the child on the futon in the same room.
He also admitted that he'd smoked marijuana after leaving work at 5 p.m. the day before.
His urine on the day of the baby's death tested positive for marijuana and methadone, a powerful prescription narcotic, according to the report.
Drug paraphernalia, including marijuana pipes, equipment for snorting crushed pills and an empty prescription bottle, were in the room with the futon and the empty crib, officers also said. The smell of marijuana in the room was strong.
Cook could not be reached for comment about what happened beyond what was reported by the Sheriff's Office.
A tragedy, to be sure. But was the death more than an accident? Did it cross the line into criminal negligence?
When an infant is suffocated while sleeping, prosecutors often struggle over whether to file charges.
When babies die while co-sleeping with a parent who rolled over on them, should the parent be charged? How about when they suffocate after getting caught under pillows, blankets or other beddings in a crib or a sofa or, in this case, a futon?
The accidental deaths of children, such as in drownings or after being left in hot vehicles, have resulted in manslaughter charges against parents. But so far, no parents in the local area have faced criminal charges from infant deaths due to unsafe sleeping conditions.
State Attorney Bill Eddins said his office, encompassing Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties, has evaluated several infant suffocations.
But he said there's no law against sleeping with a baby or putting a baby on a sofa, and in order to be charged with manslaughter, the parent must have acted with "gross negligence," a legal standard that requires more than simple carelessness.
Last week, after an eight-month investigation, the State Attorney's Office decided it will not charge Cook.
"This was a difficult decision," Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said. "The individual was sleeping with the child, and at the time he was under the influence of drugs to some extent."
In order to obtain a manslaughter conviction, however, Marcille said the state would have to show that the level of drugs in his system when the death occurred would raise the likelihood that a death or serious injury would occur. Drug paraphernalia and positive drug tests do not meet that standard, Marcille said.
He also said criminal charges in an unsafe sleeping death are problematic because such deaths do not typically meet the "reasonable person" standard, which is required to prove a manslaughter charge.
A reasonable person knows that leaving a child in a hot car is likely to cause death or serious injury, he said. But that same person might not believe that simply sleeping with a baby or allowing a baby to sleep on a sofa can lead to death.
Also, Elise Dawson, child protective investigator supervisor for the Florida Department of Children and Families in Escambia County, said juries are likely to be sympathetic to parents in co-sleeping deaths.
"It's a very socially acceptable thing to sleep with your children," she said. "People are surprised to learn children die in these situations."
Call it a crime?
Hayden's mother, Price-Morgan, and the baby's grandmother, Cynthia Price, fervently believe Cook should have been charged.
"I want a law passed where there can be justice for these babies," Price said. "If someone does drugs or alcohol and passes out on a baby, to me, that's murder.
"It wasn't accidental. It was stupidity. It was recklessness. It should be manslaughter in the least."
Months before the state attorney's decision not to charge Cook, the mother and grandmother started an online campaign, "Justice for Hayden," to rally support for stronger laws against people whose babies die in unsafe sleeping conditions. A website for the effort can be found by searching "Justice Forhayden" on Facebook.com.
They've gathered hundreds of supporting signatures, including those of Escambia County Health Department Director Dr. John Lanza and Medical Examiner Dr. Andrea Minyard.
But they're not sure where to go from here.
"I just wish there was more to do. I don't want him to be free. I want him to pay for what he did," Price-Morgan said.
As medical examiner, Minyard has investigated dozens of suspected smothering deaths. She said she has often been frustrated by state prosecutors not filing criminal charges.
"They have made their position very clear that it's not against the law to sleep with your baby, and there's not anything they can do about it," Minyard said Spreading the wordOne group looking to spread the word is the Escambia County Healthy Start Coalition. The organization educates and counsels at-risk parents, and its nurses visit parents at home during pregnancy and after birth.
When the issue of unsafe sleeping prosecutions came up at a meeting last month, coalition members' opinions differed on the appropriateness of criminal charges.
"If drugs or alcohol are involved, I have no problem prosecuting," said Pat Williams, a coalition board member and nurse.
"But what if it's legal drugs? What if they have a prescription for pain pills?" countered Debbie Trocki, executive director of the coalition.
"If they are taking that medication, they should know the child should not be in bed with them," Williams said.
"I'd hate to see everyone arrested at a point when they are in so much grief," Trocki said. "You can prosecute a lot of people, but you still need that education."
The question of punishment drew further debate.
The members agreed that unless there's abuse, prison isn't appropriate for a mourning parent after an accidental death. Counseling or recovery programs would be better options.
Williams said punishment isn't the end goal of prosecuting — the bigger reason is to make the public realize how many babies are dying silently from unsafe sleeping conditions.
"It's always been hidden," she said. "We've got to get these deaths out in the community. When a baby drowns in a pool, you hear about it. When a baby is left in a hot car, you hear about it. We've got to get that word out."