When a one-year-old boy was severely assaulted in 1997 in Brunswick County, North Carolina, his mother and her partner were charged with felony abuse.
Both were convicted and sentenced to prison and were eventually released. The child, then named David Cody Rhinehart, was unable to walk or talk for the rest of his life.
Last month, he died at age 22. And this week, the people convicted of abusing him – his biological mother, Robyn Noffsinger, 41, and her former partner David Tripp Jr, 45 – were arrested and charged again, this time with first-degree murder.
The case is unusual for its time lapse: 21 years between an assault and the death of the victim.
The murder charges rest on the argument that the child, whose name was changed to David Elei Stuart after he was adopted, died as a direct result of the abuse he suffered in 1997. Doctors who examined him at the time reported severe injuries, including a head fracture, a split lower lip, spiral fractures in the legs, burns in the diaper area that indicated immersion in a very hot liquid and bruising to the head that “would have required substantial force by squeezing,” court documents show.
“Life stopped for David to the extent that he was forever placed in a state of prolonged infancy from which he never emerged,” Jon David, the Brunswick County district attorney, said at a news conference announcing the murder charges earlier this week.
Beth Schmitt, who adopted Stuart in 1999 with her then partner Lori Elei Stuart, said in an interview this week that he had led a fruitful life despite his limitations. For two decades, she watched him grow.
Stuart, she said, seemed to love music and would smile when he heard it. He grew a thin moustache that Ms Schmitt did not like. He went to sporting events and played baseball in a league for children with disabilities; a friend would push his wheelchair around the bases.
The years after his abuse were often difficult, she said, because of recurring medical emergencies like breathing problems and bouts of pneumonia. But Ms Schmitt said those years were also a gift because doctors had told her he might not survive his sixth year.
“He was happy despite his challenges, despite the fact that he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk,” she said. “He would communicate to us by facial expressions and the noises he would make. He made people aware that life is very precious.”
Mr David praised Ms Schmitt, 44, and Mr Stuart, 52, both psychologists in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. “They provided the best quality of life he could’ve hoped for under the circumstances,” he said.
Acknowledging the 21-year gap between the abuse and Stuart’s death, Mr David said it was still legally possible to bring homicide charges because North Carolina has no statute of limitations on felonies. He added that it was not uncommon for a murder prosecution to follow an assault prosecution when victims die.
The North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner did not immediately respond to a request for information about the cause of Stuart’s death.
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In North Carolina, a first-degree murder conviction can result in a death sentence or life in prison without parole. Mr Tripp’s lawyer, W James Payne, said his client “intends to maintain his innocence and defend himself before the court.” A lawyer for Ms Noffsinger did not respond to requests for comment.
The district attorney’s office said Ms Noffsinger and Mr Tripp were being held at the Brunswick County Jail on $1m (£0.7m) bail and are scheduled to appear in Brunswick County Superior Court on 6 June.
Ms Schmitt said that as she adjusted to life without Stuart, she wanted to focus on “the good memories, not just the abuse”.
“It was a lot of work,” she said of raising him. “But I would do it all over again.”
The New York Times