Two Bellingham parents pleaded not guilty Friday, Feb. 26, to charges of neglecting their child, 3-month-old Lucian Shields, until he starved to death.
An autopsy found Lucian Mykael Shields died Dec. 8, 2015, at the age of 3 months and 13 days from malnutrition, dehydration and “neglect of ordinary care of an infant,” according to the county medical examiner’s office.
The case made national headlines last week — Nancy Grace, the Daily Mail, the Miami Herald and others picked up the story — when Brittany Shane Daniels, 23, née Hetrick, and Cody James Shields, 23, were arrested to face charges of manslaughter in the second degree.
At their first court hearing Deputy Prosecutor Eric Richey alleged Shields stayed up all night playing video games on the night before Lucian was found dead, and that he didn’t go to check on the baby until the late afternoon.
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Shields often wore headphones while gaming in the living room, and he kept the baby’s bedroom door closed, Richey said. Sometimes Shields couldn’t hear the baby crying.
Shields claimed he fed the baby three times in the night and early morning hours before Lucian died, the last time being 7 a.m. before he went to bed. Two times he propped the child’s 6-ounce bottle of formula on a blanket, as he often did, and left the room, according to charging papers.
Shields found Lucian dead in his crib at 5 p.m.
Police believe both parents were neglectful over the three months of Lucian’s life, by failing to heed doctors’ advice, and failing to give their child adequate care. At death he weighed 9 pounds and 7 ounces. He had gained 17 ounces since birth. The autopsy found the infant had no food in his stomach or small intestine.
Bail for both parents was set at $10,000 by Superior Court Commissioner Alfred Heydrich on Feb. 19. They posted bond within a few hours.
Since then Shields has shaved off parts of his beard and buzzed his hair, and Daniels has dyed her hair a darker shade of reddish brown. They sat three rows of benches apart in a crowded third-floor courtroom at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
Daniels was represented by top Public Defender Jon Komorowski. Shields is expected to have another lawyer outside of the public defender’s office, standard practice in cases with more than one defendant, to avoid a conflict of interest.
Both parents entered pleas of not guilty before Superior Court Commissioner Martha Gross on Friday — also a standard practice, early on in serious felony cases. The two hearings lasted a total of about 3 ½ minutes.
Formal charging papers released this week add no new details to the prosecutor’s statements read in court last week.
Vigils for Lucian
On social media, the case has taken on a life of its own.
Thousands of people have joined two Facebook groups — separate groups, because of differences over goals and who should be in charge — to keep tabs on the case and to demand stiff penalties for the parents.
Elizabeth Johnson, an administrator of the Justice for Baby Lucian page, said she’s “ashamed” that the deputy prosecutor has charged the parents with second-degree manslaughter, the state law against neglect that leads to a death. If convicted, the standard prison sentence for that crime is two years. Manslaughter in the first degree carries a standard prison term of 7 ½ years, for a first-time offender. The parents have no criminal history.
Johnson believes they could be charged with murder. Some online comments, however, have gone too far, she said, like one that suggested locking the parents in a cage and starving them to death.
“I’ve been trying to open their to eyes to the fact to that there’s nothing we can do to make this (death) not happen,” Johnson said. “It happened. So let’s focus on what we can do to get justice for this little baby.”
She has heard Lucian’s family has received death threats.
“I hope the family can be left alone to mourn,” said Johnson, a mother of two boys of her own. “They’re not only mourning the loss of a child, but the fact that someone in their family is responsible for this. That’s a lot of suffering to be going through.”
Her group held a candlelight vigil Tuesday night in Maritime Heritage Park.
Another group, Remembrance of Baby Lucian, plans to hold another event at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, a walking vigil along Lakeway Drive, starting from Civic Field. At the end, people can sign a petition asking the prosecutor’s office to file charges of manslaughter in the first degree, said Lisa MacDonald, one of the group’s coordinators.
Many in the group suggested asking the prosecutor’s office to file murder charges. MacDonald believes first-degree manslaughter is more realistic.
The group also hopes to raise money for a bench in Boulevard Park to remember Lucian.
In MacDonald’s view, public outcry stems largely from a video on the Herald’s website showing the couple in a jail courtroom, with blank expressions as the prosecutor reads a narrative about their baby’s death. At times Shields folded his arms behind his head.
“They just didn’t seem to care,” MacDonald said, “especially Cody. He’s sitting there like he’s waiting to get his driver’s license.”
She, too, has heard the family has been getting threats. She emphasized that her group does not condone lashing out at the family.
“I don’t even hate Brittany or Cody,” MacDonald said. “I wish they would’ve reached out for help.”
Supporters of the parents declined to talk with a Herald reporter outside the courtroom Friday morning, Feb. 26.
Earlier in the week, however, a man identifying himself as Daniels’ grandfather, Paul, called a morning radio show on 790 KGMI. He told the radio host, Dillon Honcoop, that Lucian had an eating disorder, and that there was “more to the story” than what had been reported in the media.
“They had a specialist involved with Lucian,” he said. “He had a problem, a medical problem — he couldn’t metabolize food correctly, and he was having problems even eating more than like a couple ounces at a time.”
He said it was not a case of neglect — “even though that’s what seems to be promoted in the media.”
“It’s not just the media,” Honcoop cut in. “Prosecutors are saying this is a case of neglect.”
A Herald reporter’s efforts to reach the grandfather weren’t successful. On the radio he said he’d never met Shields, but that he’d cared for the child at times. He disputed that Lucian hadn’t been eating. An autopsy found feces in Lucian’s large intestine, the man pointed out.
“Like I say, there was some kind of medical issue that was going on, but they couldn’t get him to absorb nutrients,” he said. “It just wasn’t working.”