This story is the eleventh in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
Lovell McDowell was awakened one night in April, 1988, by the sound of her infant daughter, Brittany Smith.
McDowell found her boyfriend, then known as Charles Robins, holding the 11-month old and hollering, “Brittany, come on. Brittany, wake up. Wake up, Brittany.”
McDowell called 911 and ran outside screaming that her baby had stopped breathing. An Air Force sergeant heard her and performed CPR until paramedics arrived and took the baby to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Nevada medical examiner Dr. Nina Hollander concluded, based on an autopsy, that Brittany had died from blunt-force trauma, which could not have resulted from the CPR. The child had suffered extensive injuries – a broken back, broken leg, and internal hemorrhaging.
Robins, then 19, was charged with first-degree murder and felony child abuse. At his trial, McDowell testified that Sharif had abused Brittany. Other prosecution witnesses also said they had seen him physically abuse the child.
Authorities had been called in the past about the injuries of Smith, who at one point was in a body cast; but investigations on four occasions before the infant’s death failed to find evidence of abuse. Nevertheless the jury convicted Robins and sentenced him to die, concluding the death involved torture and depravity of mind.
On appeal, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld the conviction, concluding the death was the result of “a pattern of abusive treatment” by Robins.
Robins, who changed his name in prison to Ha’im Al Matin Sharif, spent years filing post-conviction petitions with no success. That changed after Cary Sandman, an Arizona federal defender, was appointed to the case in 2012.
Sandman consulted two experts, Dr. Patrick Barnes, chief of pediatric neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center, and Dr. John Plunkett, a physician board-certified in anatomical, clinical and forensic pathology who’d conducted more than 200 autopsies on children younger than two. After reviewing Brittany’s medical records, Barnes and Plunkett concluded to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Brittany had died of undiagnosed, untreated infantile scurvy — a disease caused by malnutrition that can cause broken bones and sores that will not heal.
Sandman tracked down McDowell, who provided a declaration stating that police and prosecutors coerced her to testify falsely, saying they threatened to take away her other children if she did not. McDowell further declared that one of the other prosecution witnesses admitted he had falsely accused Sharif of abuse in return for leniency in a pending drug case.
Citing the “compelling nature” of the new medical evidence, the Nevada Supreme Court concluded that the evidence, if true, “would show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted” Sharif. The state high court ordered a new hearing where the new evidence could be presented.
That hearing never took place.
Instead, prosecutors offered him a deal: Remain on death row awaiting a hearing on the evidence that could lead to a new trial; or plead guilty to second-degree murder, and be released in return for the time Sharif already had served.
He accepted the deal, left death row in June 2017, and went to live with relatives in Washington.