The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday upheld the conviction and life sentence of a former University of Tulsa running back convicted of abusing and killing his 6-week-old daughter.
Tavarreon Dickerson, 27, was convicted by a Tulsa County jury of first-degree child abuse murder in December 2017 for the death of 6-week-old Raylie Dickerson on Jan. 13, 2016. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Though Dickerson has maintained his innocence in the case, the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office said Raylie died from blunt force trauma to the head. Dickerson’s case was included with other cases that involved Shaken Baby Syndrome in The Frontier in October.
Prior to Thursday’s ruling, Dickerson’s ex-wife told The Frontier that she believed he was innocent, though District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said he was confident Dickerson killed the child by abusing her.
After Raylie’s death, Dickerson told investigators that he had laid down on the couch with Raylie after his then-wife had woke up with her and tried unsuccessfully to feed the child. After falling asleep for about 45 minutes, Dickerson said he woke to found Raylie limp and not breathing.
After Dickerson filed an application for post-conviction relief with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals last year, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel among other things, a Florida pathologist who examined samples of Raylie’s brain testified that she most likely died of natural causes, specifically a burst arteriovenous malformation — an unusual tangle of veins and arteries that can spontaneously rupture — near her brain stem. The burst malformation was not discovered until after Dickerson’s conviction.
Following an evidentiary hearing earlier this year, a Tulsa County judge ruled that such malformations could be ruptured by external stimuli, which could include abusive head trauma force or even medical intervention after she was injured.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals’ order on Thursday also pointed out that the forensic pathologist’s testimony did not address healing rib fractures, bone bruises to the skull, a spinal hemorrhage and a healing hemorrhage of the optic nerve sheath that were discovered at autopsy.
In its order, the Court of Criminal Appeals states it accords strong deference to the Tulsa judge’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, and that Dickerson’s trial attorneys’ strategy of not asking for further cuts of the samples taken from Raylie’s brain, which would have showed the rupture, was not “the kind of professional error that warrants the name deficient performance under prevailing professional norms.”
The court also found that the omission of the burst malformation did not create a reasonable probability that Dickerson’s jury would have not found him guilty.
The court also denied Dickerson’s assertion that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing prosecutors to present evidence of previous domestic violence incidents by Dickerson against his wife and other two older children, that there was no prosecutorial misconduct for failing to fully disclose the contents of a “shaken baby” presentation given at trial and other actions, and denied Dickerson’s request to reverse his conviction.
“We could not be more disappointed in both the decision and opinion of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals,” said Maria Kolar, Dickerson’s attorney.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment by The Frontier on Thursday.