A sailor who faced attempted murder charges in the 2011 poisoning of his newborn son will spend seven years in a military prison after a judge instead found him guilty Wednesday of aggravated assault.
Navy Capt. Charles Purnell sentenced Petty Officer 2nd Class Garry Mitchell, 42, after deliberating 15 minutes following a six-day court-martial. Mitchell also received a dishonorable discharge, with his rate reduced to seaman recruit.
He originally faced three charges of attempted premeditated murder and child endangerment, punishable by up to life in prison. Purnell acquitted him of the murder charges, instead finding him guilty of two charges of aggravated assault of a child with means likely to produce death or grievous harm.
The acquittals came after Dr. Michelle Clayton, a child-abuse pediatrician at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, testified that she viewed the case as medical child abuse relating to Munchausen syndrome by proxy. The disorder involves parents or guardians exaggerating or causing a child's illness to seek attention.
The case hinged on hospital records, access to prescription opiates and searches of hard drives seized from Mitchell's Virginia Beach home.
After a premature birth in May 2011, a healthy Rowan Mitchell was discharged from a hospital on June 2, 2011, said Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Lewis, the Navy prosecutor.
"But he doesn't stay healthy," Lewis said.
On June 6, Rowan was taken to a hospital amid concerns that his vomit was tinted red. That's around the time a search for "baby coffins" first appeared on a computer taken from Mitchell's home, testified Rex Gray, a Naval Criminal Investigative Service expert. The hospital visit was followed by others, including one in which the boy was admitted from June 16-23 with respiratory failure.
"He is in such dire distress that a chaplain is called," Lewis said.
Rowan was admitted to the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center on June 27, and doctors soon became suspicious. Hours after a July 7 visit from his father, the baby was in distress.
A test confirmed the presence of opiates, Lewis said. A lab test following another visit from his father on July 22, during which Mitchell fed Rowan and the baby again appeared ill, confirmed the presence of hydrocodone.
Testimony showed Mitchell had nine active prescriptions for fast-acting hydrocodone -- commonly known as Vicodin or Norco--at the time.
Searches for poisons and how to detect overdoses appeared on Mitchell's computer during that time, Gray testified.
But Mitchell's attorneys, Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak and Lt. Cmdr. Michael Hanzel, called the computer searches attempts by Mitchell to investigate what might be wrong with his son. Czaplak and Hanzel presented the case as a whodunit, saying others in the home, including Mitchell's wife, Cassie, could have performed the computer searches.
Cassie Mitchell could not be reached for comment. She did not attend the trial.
Defense attorneys discounted Gray's testimony that Mitchell's Facebook account was logged in during the "baby coffin" search was proof that the father conducted it. On the trial's first day, Czaplak logged in to his own Facebook account on a laptop, stepped aside and asked Gray to search for the phrase.
The defense also argued that Mitchell's wife had access to her husband's prescriptions, and the attorneys suggested someone at the hospital also could have obtained the drugs. But Paula Jeffries, who controls the narcotics vault at the medical center, testified that hydrocodone is highly controlled and monitored by staff.
Mitchell enlisted in December 2002 and deployed twice beginning in 2007. He served as an aviation electronics technician with Strike Fighter Squadron 106 at Oceana Naval Air Station since 2010.
Rowan, now 4, lives with his older brother with legal guardians who hope to adopt them. One of the guardians, Mary Farmer, described Rowan in court as a happy boy.
"If he were to walk into this room, everyone would look at him," she said. "He's just the life of the party."