JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi judge has overturned a death sentence but upheld a man's murder conviction in a case that turns on evidence of shaken baby syndrome — something now distrusted by many scientists and doctors.

Adams County Circuit Judge Forrest Johnson ruled Friday that a jury should consider a new sentence for 39-year-old Jeffrey Havard, who was convicted in the 2002 death of the infant daughter of his girlfriend. In a Mississippi capital murder case, the jury's only choices would be death or life in prison without parole.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a hearing on Havard's case in 2015, allowing him to present evidence disputing the validity of shaken baby syndrome as a cause of death. Havard has said he accidentally dropped his girlfriend's baby, 6-month-old Chloe Madison Britt, causing her to hit her head on the toilet.

Johnson wrote that there's too much other evidence of Havard's guilt to overturn his conviction, including conflicting statements he gave. In one statement, he said he didn't know who or what caused the girl's injuries, while in a second statement he told police she fell, that he dropped Britt while bathing her and then shook her.

"This court can say with confidence that the petitioner's evidence is not sufficient to undermine confidence in his conviction," he wrote.

Mark Jicka, a lawyer for Havard, said he and other attorneys are considering an appeal.

"We're glad that Jeffrey is off death row, but disappointed that a new trial was not ordered," Jicka said. "We hope that one day a jury will be able to hear the evidence that proves his innocence."

Prosecutors said Havard also sexually assaulted the infant. Defense attorneys said that was not true, but they were not allowed to contest the finding in the hearing. The sexual assault claim makes Havard eligible for the death penalty.

One of the state's witnesses in the original trial was pathologist Steven Hayne, whose autopsy work and testimony has been the subject of repeated challenges across Mississippi.

During a 2017 hearing, Hayne testified that he still believed Britt's death was a homicide, but he also testified that he'd now describe the death as "abusive head trauma." In 2009 the American Academy of Pediatrics advised physicians to describe certain head injuries to infants. Other experts, though, testified during the 2017 hearing that didn't believe shaking alone could cause death.

In his ruling, Johnson said he still found Hayne's new testimony "credible and reasonably consistent with his trial testimony, given the evolution of the (shaken baby syndrome) science."

Despite upholding the verdict, Johnson said a new jury panel should be drawn to resentence Havard, saying the new arguments might have dissuaded the original jury from sentencing Havard to death.

"While the evidence presented by the petitioner is not sufficient to undermine this court's confidence in the conviction, there is a cautious disturbance in confidence of the sentence of death, even if slight." Johnson wrote.

Havard remains imprisoned at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.


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