Shiloh Brafford walked out of the doors of the Wagoner County Courthouse a free woman, somberly embracing her teenage son and flanked by her father and boyfriend as they exited.
Though she had entered an Alford plea of guilty a few minutes earlier to second-degree manslaughter for the death of her 14-month-old stepson Davis Brafford in exchange for a sentence of 8 years with time served, she was now a free woman.
“I’m just tired of fighting,” she said as she left the courtroom.
After nearly a decade of fighting to have her conviction for first-degree murder overturned, she had lost custody of all but one of her children, spent eight years in prison, spent all the money in her retirement account, and was a still a convicted felon, meaning she couldn’t return to her past career as a intensive care nurse for at least five years, according to state licensure requirements.
“I proved my innocence and still got stuck with it,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back to a trial. It was too much of a risk.”
In March 2011, Brafford was found guilty of first-degree murder by a Wagoner County jury and sentenced to life in prison. At trial, several doctors and prosecutors alleged that Brafford had shaken Davis, causing the blood vessels on the outside of his brain to rupture and causing his brain to swell. The shaking had been so violent, the doctors testified, that the blood vessels in the retinas of Davis’s eyes had ruptured.
Two days after he was transported to Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Davis was declared brain dead and removed from life support.
The only plausible explanation for the injuries to Davis’s brain and eyes, the doctors testified, was Brafford grabbing the child and violently shaking him.
“It is my opinion with a certainty in about a 98, maybe 99 percent level, in that range, that the most likely cause was that the child was shaken,” testified Dr. Stephen Groves, a Tulsa ophthalmologist who examined Davis’s eyes after he was brought to the hospital.
Shiloh couldn’t afford the estimated minimum $10,000 it would have cost to pay expert witnesses to review her case. Her conviction was later overturned with the help of testimony from child abuse experts secured by the Innocence Project.
Eight years after being sentenced to life in prison, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Brafford’s conviction and ordered a new trial, after several medical and biomechanical experts, including the state medical examiner who performed Davis’s autopsy, testified that the toddler had most likely died from injuries from a fall. He also testified that critical medical information about Davis’s previous health issues had been withheld prior to the trial.
A child dies
On July 17, 2008, Shiloh Brafford, her husband Daniel and Shiloh’s three biological children, ages 6, 4 and 2, had just returned to their Broken Arrow home from a family trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Daniel had picked up Davis and his 2-year-old daughter from his ex-wife Amber Brafford’s house that night and brought them to his house.
Shiloh, who was an intensive-care nurse at Southcrest in Tulsa at the time, had just gotten married to Daniel about two months earlier in 2008.
By all accounts, court records state, Davis seemed fine. He ate with the other children, and after Daniel left the house to go golfing, Shiloh laid him down for an hour-long nap in his playpen while the other children played outside. When Davis began to act fussy, Shiloh said she brought him outside to play with the other kids in a small kiddie pool while she gave a haircut to her 4-year-old son Gentry.
While the kids were outside playing, Shiloh got a text from Daniel asking her to pick up his paycheck. Shiloh said she then brought the kids in the house and was drying off her 2-year-old Piper when out of the corner of her eye she saw Davis walk in and fall on the linoleum kitchen floor. When she turned, he was laying on his back crying.
Shiloh said she picked him up and comforted him. She didn’t notice any big goose eggs or cuts on his head from the fall.
“I didn’t think anything of it. He seemed fine. He wasn’t crying for longer than average for that kind of fall,” Shiloh told The Frontier. “I was thinking it was a normal kid toddler fall.”
Shiloh said she took Davis into the master bathroom shower with her and rinsed Gentry’s hair off her arms. When she emerged, the other kids were playing and jumping on the bed. She placed Davis on the bed and playfully bounced him on the bed a couple of times with the others. He was smiling and laughing at this point, she said.
Shiloh went to the kitchen to get one of the children a drink and was out of the room for about a minute. When she returned, she saw her 6-year-old daughter Sheridan standing by the bed holding Davis, she said.
When she took Davis from Sheridan and put him on the bed to change his diaper, Shiloh said she could tell something was wrong — he just laid there, didn’t smile, was not breathing normally and just stared blankly.
“He wasn’t right,” Shiloh said. “He wasn’t following me or making facial expressions at me. He was kind of laying there limp and not tracking.”
Shiloh called 911. In that call, according to court records, Shiloh told the operator that Davis had been limp and moaning for about 10 or 15 minutes. Davis could be heard crying in the background during the call. Court records indicate that she also told the operator Davis had fallen, though that information was not relayed to paramedics en route. Around that time she also texted and called Daniel, telling him to come home because something was wrong with Davis.
Paramedics initially thought Davis may be having a seizure, according to court testimony, and he was taken by ambulance to Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa.
At some point, Sheridan told Shiloh’s mother, who had come over to watch the kids while Shiloh and Davis were heading to the hospital, that Davis had fallen off the bed after Shiloh left the room, a detail that Davis’s 2-year-old sister also mentioned later in an interview with investigators.
“We were playing on the bed like jumping on it and I was holding him so he wouldn’t fall off but then I got into this really exciting show so I looked at it and then he fell off the bed,” Sheridan later told investigators, according to court records.
At the hospital, doctors performed a computerized tomography (CT) scan on Davis and found that blood was filling the space between his brain and the dura — the fibrous covering between the skull and brain — to the point it shifted his brain from the right to left side of his skull. Later, doctors testifying on behalf of Shiloh would say the CT images showed differing levels of blood density in his skull, indicating that some of the bleeding had occurred much earlier.
Doctors performed emergency surgery on Davis, removing part of his skull and draining the fluid that had built up in an effort to save his life.
Despite the surgery, Davis’s brain continued to swell, constricting the blood flow to his brain. Eventually, doctors declared him brain dead and he died two days after the injury.
Suspicion immediately fell on Shiloh.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Stephen Groves examined Davis the day after his surgery and later said he found between 80 and 100 superficial hemorrhages in each of his retinas, However, Oklahoma State Medical examiner Dr. Andrew Sibley later testified he found only a handful of hemorrhages during autopsy.
A Broken Arrow police officer said later that when he examined Davis, the child had a bruise on his upper arm and on his face. Sibley also testified that Davis had bruises on his legs, but they were fairly consistent with what one would expect to find on a toddler, and that all of the bruises were slight and superficial and most had disappeared by the time of the autopsy a day after Davis died.
Sibley declined an interview request from The Frontier.
Shiloh, Daniel and Amber Brafford, Davis’s mother, were all questioned at the hospital by both Broken Arrow police and medical professionals, including child abuse pediatrician and former director of the Children’s Justice Center in Tulsa Dr. Debra Lowen.
Lowen later testified that she got Davis’s medical and developmental history from Amber, and that he had been a healthy baby up until he sustained his injuries.
“Police officers were there, social workers were there,” Amber Brafford told The Frontier. “I didn’t understand anything about what was going on whatsoever. I thought he slipped and fell. I never thought even 1 percent he was going to die, I just thought there was an accident, and something was wrong.”
The following day, Amber said, doctors told her that Davis was “80 percent brain dead” and that his injuries were non-accidental. The grief-stricken parents made the decision to take Davis off life-support.
Doctors told Davis’s biological parents that it appeared his wounds had been intentionally inflicted through violent shaking, and that Davis was almost certainly a victim of child abuse, likely by the last person who had watched him — Shiloh.
“He (the doctor) said ‘he would not have a head injury of that magnitude from any fall, I don’t care if she told me he fell 20 feet out of a tree house onto the ground,’” Amber said. “‘You can’t get a head injury the way his was, or the retinal eye hemorrhaging or the brain bleeding.’”
Rather, the doctor told Amber, Davis’s injuries were probably the result of him being shaken and slammed into a hard surface.
“He specifically said she would have to have shaken him at 80 to 90 miles per hour and there would have had to be some kind of impact on his head either on a wall or on a floor because there was a fracture on the back of his head,” Amber said.
When Shiloh arrived back at the hospital the next day to check on Davis, Daniel told her she should leave, Shiloh said.
“He said ‘They’re trying to say you did this,’” Shiloh said. “It was like a gut-punch, because I’ve saved people’s lives for a living. I was always good with kids, and for them to say that, like what do you mean? There’s no way. You’re so wrong. It’s scary because someone can just accuse you and you’re under investigation and under a microscope.”
Dr. Roger Barton, Davis’s treating ICU physician at Saint Francis, later testified that he had noticed a small fracture at the back of Davis’s head in the CT images, though he made no note of the injury in Davis’s chart. Barton testified that the injuries would require force associated with a 20 to 40 foot fall.
Sibley, the state medical examiner, testified that when he discovered the fracture, Dr. Lowen, who was present at the autopsy, “was surprised when I pointed out the fracture as it had not been noted at the hospital, where several clinicians had apparently concluded that this was a shaken baby case.”
Sibley also noted a faint bruise on the back of Davis’s head near the fracture.
In August, Sibley issued his medical examiner’s report: the cause of Davis’s death was “craniocerebral injuries due to blunt force trauma.” However, Sibley listed the manner of death as “unknown” rather than accident or homicide.
Sibley wrote in his report that there was evidence of a heavy impact to the back of Davis’s head, producing a skull fracture, bleeding on the brain and massive brain swelling. Sibley also wrote that it was unlikely the low level fall in the kitchen would cause the injuries, but there had been reports about the child falling off the bed, which may have caused the injury.
Three months later, Sibley had a meeting with Broken Arrow detectives “in which there was general agreement that there was no specific evidence of abuse or neglect and that the findings were consistent with the accidental fall off the bed described by the stepsister,” according to court records.
However, Sibley testified that he later met at the Tulsa Children’s Justice Center with Dr. Lowen, local law enforcement and OSBI investigators (who were assigned the case at the direction of the former head of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in December 2008), pediatrician and then-president of the American Association of Pediatrics Dr. Robert Block, who consulted on the case.
“It seemed to me that the purpose of the meeting was to attempt to persuade me to change my opinion and re-classify the manner of death as ‘homicide,’” Sibley later stated in an affidavit.
During that meeting, Sibley later said, there were various accounts of what might have happened to cause Davis’s injuries. Some in the room (Sibley did not specify who in his affidavit) said that none of the children who were present at the time were capable of picking Davis up.
Yet, Sibley said he remained unconvinced that Davis had been shaken.
There was no need to say Davis was shaken to explain his death, Sibley wrote.
“There was no evidence suggestive of shaking, e.g., bruising on the chest, neck injury, and the like,” Sibley wrote. “The retinal hemorrhages were unimportant since retinal hemorrhages are non-specific and can also be seen following accidental injuries.”
Amber and her mother went back to the hospital about three months after Davis died. There had been no arrests in the case and Amber wanted to clarify some things with the doctor. She said she knew the floor under the linoleum was concrete, since she had once lived in that house, and Davis had been at an age where he was climbing out of his high chair. Could it have been an accident?
She was told by the doctor that it was not.
“He told us to our face that he did not die from a fall, period. And he would testify to that in court,” Amber said. “He told us she was literally getting away with murder. So we kept pressing the issue with the Broken Arrow Police Department.”
She began scrutinizing Shiloh’s story and was convinced she was not telling the truth.
The tension that had arisen between Shiloh, Daniel and Amber had finally caused her and Daniel to divorce. Shortly after Daniel filed for divorce in February 2009, Shiloh learned she was pregnant with his baby.
Daniel, who declined an interview request from The Frontier, would later testify against Shiloh during her murder trial.
After the two split, she had taken a job as a nurse in the Dallas area, and lived there with her three children.
“One of the reasons I didn’t stay in Tulsa was I didn’t want to be seen in the community,” Brafford said. “I didn’t know if someone would say or do something to me. I was afraid to be seen in public. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that everyone was thinking I was a murderer. Not just a murderer — a baby killer.”
More than a year after Davis’s death Shiloh was charged in Wagoner County District Court with his murder. By that point, both she and her attorney had both thought the case had been closed.
Wagoner County Assistant District Attorney Marny Hill, who handled the case after it was overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeals, declined an interview request by The Frontier.
“I don’t hear another peep on anything. I think it’s over,” Brafford said. “I’m trying to put my life back together down there and start over fresh, move on and provide a safe place for my kids. We’re starting to finally settle down and quit looking over our shoulder. Then I get arrested.”
Shiloh told The Frontier that she, then eight months pregnant, was arrested by authorities in Texas and her children were driven to the state line and turned over to Oklahoma Department of Human Services custody before being placed in Tulsa’s Laura Dester Children’s Center.
After being taken to the Wagoner County Jail, Shiloh cashed out her 401(k) to make her $100,000 bail. Though she was scheduled to give birth in Texas via C-section, being out on bail required that she give birth in Oklahoma as a condition of her release.
As soon as she arrived at the hospital to give birth, DHS called Daniel, and her new son was taken minutes after being born, before she could even breastfeed, she said.
“They took him at birth,” she said. “I was supposed to get like two hours with him before they called Daniel, but they called Daniel as soon as I got there because he had come up there and threw a big fit about suing them if they didn’t contact him right away. I didn’t even get any time with him afterwards.
“The first time I saw my baby after the hospital was on the news.”
At trial, Dr. Groves, the ophthalmologist who had examined Davis, told jurors that it was “exceedingly unlikely” that the injuries to his eyes and brain would have been caused by a minor fall, or even by two or three such falls.
Groves told the jury he was certain the injury was caused by shaking and that the skull fracture was “a fairly moot point.”
“It doesn’t really matter either way,” Groves testified. “It doesn’t change my opinion. It is not very pertinent.”
Groves also said the only explanation for the retinal hemorrhages, aside from violent shaking, was a long history of severe illness, such as leukemia, or a severe accident, such as someone who “had fallen off a trailer and been dragged along a highway.”
Drs. Groves, Lowen, Block and Barton all testified for the prosecution, all said the injuries to Davis indicated he was purposefully and violently shaken and that the skull fracture was not the cause of death, rather, the brain swelling was.
The only expert witness called by Shiloh’s attorney was Sibley, who had also been called by the prosecution, and testified to his findings, that similar injuries are possible in short falls, and that the “unknown” manner of death just meant it was inconclusive whether a homicide had occurred or an accident.
“All their experts kept saying all this stuff like ‘it could only be shaken baby,’ ‘it could only be this.’ My attorney was lost and I was sitting there watching him thinking ‘oh my God, the ship is sinking. We’re not even making any headway,’” Shiloh said. “He just couldn’t fight that. How are you going to fight these doctors? Most people trust doctors. Why would we not trust doctors? They have our health and lives in their hands. They come across as very trustworthy professionals, especially when they come to court wearing a stethoscope.”
Shiloh’s trial attorney, Patrick Adams, told The Frontier that money was the main barrier to obtaining expert witnesses for trial, and that he believed it would have cost at least $10,000 for an expert to even look over the case files. That was money she didn’t have, he said. And because Shiloh had hired her own attorney rather than a public defender, she was not considered “indigent” and eligible for state funds to pay for it, he said.
“We just got blasted with experts,” Adams said. “That was the problem — no money. All of my arguments at trial were dead on, but their experts said different.”
At the trial, Shiloh testified in her own defense. She denied ever shaking or hitting Davis, recounted the fall in the kitchen and later seeing Sheridan holding him in the bedroom.
Former Wagoner County first assistant district attorney John David Luton pressed Shiloh during cross-examination. After going through her version of events, Luton ended his questioning by directly accusing her of shaking Davis and then slamming his head into something, according to court transcripts.
“Isn’t it true, ma’am, that when you got home from your vacation that the kids were tired, you were tired, Davis is fussy, you cannot get him down to sleep, he’s fussy again and crying, he comes inside and falls and hits his head and cries some more,” Luton said, “you are mad at Daniel because he’s not there to help you take care of these five kids and playing golf and you went back in the bedroom and you shook him until he was limp; isn’t that true ma’am?”
“No, sir,” Shiloh replied.
“And then slammed his head down; isn’t that a fact?” Luton asked.
“No, sir. That is not a fact.”
After the case was given to the jury on March 25, 2011, Shiloh said she and her family went out for lunch in Wagoner, though nerves prevented her from eating.
“We’re nervous, but we’re trying to be positive and hopeful,” Brafford said. “We still believed in the justice system at this point.”
Then her attorney called and said the jury had reached a verdict.
“He even said to me ‘ready to get your life back?’” Brafford said.
But when the jury walked into the courtroom, Shiloh said she knew something was wrong.
“When the jury walked in, none of them would look at me,” Brafford said. “They had looked at me the whole trial.”
Then came the verdict — guilty.
Shiloh said she remembers hearing her mother scream, and the judge banging his gavel and calling for order.
“It was like an instant freeze. I just stood there for a second like ‘this isn’t real. This is a movie I’m watching. I’m not part of it. This doesn’t happen to people like me,’” Shiloh said. Her attorneys grabbed her to keep her from falling “I was like ‘no, this is wrong.’”
She was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole, cuffed and led away to a jail cell, where she collapsed onto the bunk.
“I just cried until I couldn’t cry anymore,” she said. “My eyes are almost swollen shut because this isn’t supposed to happen. You don’t send an innocent person to prison for life. That’s not supposed to happen in America. What’s going to happen to my kids? They’re going to grow up without a mom. They might as well have said death. Then you get treated like an animal.”
Amber had not been allowed to sit in for most of the trial, since the defense stated they might call her to the witness stand. But she was there for the verdict, she said.
“I guess I felt he (Davis) finally got the justice he deserved,” Amber said, “because I honestly felt like she was lying the whole time.”
When the Department of Corrections transport van pulled up to the Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility in McLoud, Shiloh, who had never had a criminal conviction before, said it was like landing on another planet.
“Seeing all that barbed wire and razor wire and everyone is in grey,” she remembered. “The quintessential fact about prisoners is people convicted of a child crime get treated really rough. I was fortunate in that it wasn’t as rough as I’ve heard it is in men’s prisons. I did get bullied a lot about it.
“When I got there, I think I cried the whole first year. It’s a culture shock. I had never been in trouble for anything before. I didn’t fit in.”
After a few years, Shiloh said, she began to earn the respect of some of the inmates. She mostly tried to stick to herself, avoided getting in trouble with the guards and other prisoners and began participating in some of the programs offered there, working in the law library and eventually leading the worship team there as pastor.
She said she tried not to dwell on the unfairness of what had happened.
“I couldn’t do anything about that part of it,” she said. “I was there. It felt like a death sentence.”
She was also using the knowledge she gained in the law library to file legal paperwork for other prisoners, as well as herself.
In 2013, she filed her own application for post-conviction relief with the Wagoner County District Court, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel based on the fact her attorney did not call any expert witnesses during trial.
Sibley, Shiloh wrote in her brief, “was all that the defense relied upon because as Counsel relayed to (the) petitioner, it would have cost $25,000 for expert witnesses and she did not have the money, nor did he believe the state would fund it.”
After a hearing, in which she had to question her former attorney since she had no lawyer, her request was denied. However, she appealed that ruling based on the fact she had requested a public defender for the hearing but was denied one by the judge. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and sent the matter back to Wagoner County in September 2015.
Around the time her new evidentiary hearing was scheduled in 2016, the national Innocence Project organization began to get involved in her case, Shiloh said.
In addition to getting an attorney, the Innocence Project was able to link her to several medical and biomechanical experts to look at her case. And, importantly, her attorney was able to get access to Davis’s medical records prior to his injury.
What those medical records showed would prove key to having her conviction overturned.
During trial, Dr. Lowen had testified that the medical information she had received from Davis’s mother indicated he had been an otherwise healthy child prior to his death.
But the records uncovered by Shloh’s trial attorney showed that was not the case, though no expert witness had been asked to look at them and make sense of them.
The records from Davis’s primary care physician at Warren Clinic included growth charts and indicated he had been diagnosed with “failure to thrive” by his doctor, court records state.
At birth, Davis had been in the 50th percentile compared to other children for size and weight. But by the time he was 12 months old, his head had grown into the 95th percentile, while his body was in the 50th percentile and his weight was in the 5th percentile of children his age. The reason for Davis’s enlarged head, doctors who testified in Shiloh’s appeal stated, was likely because of fluid build-up within his skull that spurred his head to grow large in proportion to his body.
In an affidavit filed in the case by Shiloh’s attorneys, Sibley stated that had he known the child’s medical history at the time of autopsy, he would have been more convicted that the child had died from an accidental fall.
“Taken together, it seems to me that Davis had not been a well child, and apparently had a pre-existing, progressive and expanding fluid collection (likely an old subdural) around his brain,” Sibley stated. “The presence of this would have rendered him vulnerable to a catastrophic collapse from minor, even trivial trauma, the types of trauma that would not likely cause a fatal outcome in normal children.”
Dr. John J. Plunkett, a forensic and clinical pathologist from Minnesota who testified pro-bono for Shiloh during her appeal, stated that he believed that fluid had been building for some time on Davis’s brain prior to death, stimulating skull growth. That fluid, Plunkett said, could have been either spinal and other fluids or from chronic bleeding on the brain. The old blood shown in Davis’s CT scan caused him to lean toward a chronic bleed in the child’s skull.
In 2001, Plunkett, who died in 2018, conducted a study that found evidence of children who had suffered injuries similar to Davis’s after a fall of less than 10 feet.
Davis’s slip and fall on the linoleum floor may have contributed to his head injury, Plunkett testified, but a fall of 3-4 feet on a carpeted floor “may cause a fatal brain injury in a completely normal 14-month-old toddler. The odds of such an outcome are increased if the toddler’s head is enlarged” because of chronic fluid or bleeding on the brain.
Plunkett, as well as retired pediatrician Dr. John Galaznik, also testified that Shiloh, who was around 5 feet tall and weighed less than 120 pounds would be physically incapable of shaking Davis with enough force to inflict the injuries he suffered from without inflicting some type of neck injury.
Dr. Chris Van Ee, a biomedical and mechanical engineer who specializes in head injury biometrics, testified that if Davis was standing when he fell from the 28 inch tall bed, or if another child had dropped him, it would create enough force to cause the fracture as well as the subdural bleeding, especially if the child had previous bleeding on the brain, as shown by the CT scans.
Van Ee also said he had conducted a study that showed even falls from as low as 32 inches were capable of causing skull fractures, sustained subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage and brain swelling.
On June 27, 2017, Wagoner County District Judge Dennis Shook issued his findings of fact and conclusions of law, stating that medical evidence shows it was “biomechanically impossible” for Shiloh to have been capable of exerting enough force to cause the injuries by shaking, that critical information had been withheld from the medical examiner and that the experts presented by Shiloh had “discredited the state’s experts to such an extent that had such evidence been presented, it would have affected the outcome of the original case.”
On March 28, 2019, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals thew out Shiloh’s conviction for first-degree murder. In its mandate, the court said Shiloh needed a new trial because the new evidence presented by expert witnesses had uncovered a “probable miscarriage of justice.”
Amber, who attended almost all of the post-conviction hearings, said each hearing was like reliving the loss of her son.
She could not believe what the expert witnesses testifying for Shiloh were saying, she said. They had never seen her child in-person, she said, and were making diagnoses by looking at a picture and records.
“In my mind, everything they were saying, I was thinking, those people have never seen my child other than a blown up picture I think made his head look even bigger than it was. They had never even seen my child dead or alive. All they had to go off was paperwork,”Amber said. “You can bring someone from another state to say whatever you want, and you can tell them what you want to say or pay them to say what you want them to say.”
She was also taken aback by Sibley stating that the injuries were most likely accidental.
“I was like ‘you saw him and this is nine years out and all of a sudden you change your mind? It didn’t make any sense to me.”
Amber said she felt like she was being attacked by Shiloh’s attorneys and expert witnesses as a bad parent who didn’t take proper care of a child she loved and cared for deeply.
“It was very hard for me to hear them say all these things and discount me as a parent and say he never had a healthy day in his life,” Amber said, “and make it sound like it’s my fault he died because he wasn’t a healthy child.”
A new trial
It was a beautiful, sunny day, Shiloh recalled, as she walked across the yard of the Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility. She had been in prison for eight years on that day, March 28, 2019, but still held hope that she would be freed.
When she got back to her pod, she saw a Post-It Note on her window. “Call your mom ASAP.”
She approached her case manager and asked her to call her mother. Once she got on the phone, she heard her mother screaming and crying hysterically. Shiloh began to get a scared, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach that something bad had happened. Then she heard what her mother was saying.
“She said ‘You’re coming home!’ That’s the first thing I heard,” Shiloh said. “I said ‘Well yeah, of course. Eventually, I believe I’m coming home. We’ve been praying for this.’ And she said ‘No, you’re coming home now. You won.”
It was Shiloh’s turn to scream.
All of the other women on the pod came running.
“I’m going home!” she yelled.
She was immediately mobbed in hugs and congratulations from the others.
“We all just collapsed on the floor on a dog pile around the phone,” she said. “They were so happy for me. You don’t hear that much, people being happy for others in prison. But it gives them hope.”
On the day Shiloh walked out of prison, her son, now 16, was there to greet her.
For Amber, the news that Shiloh had been granted a new trial was devastating.
“I honestly couldn’t believe what I heard. I was shocked,” Amber said. “I knew what I had already heard from being at the hospital when everything happened, so when it was overturned and she got a new trial, I really didn’t want her to go to a new trial and put some kind of seed of doubt where she would get to walk away and not have anything on her record. Even though she served 8 years, I felt like she should have served life.”
Shortly after she was released, Shiloh said she had a falling out with her attorney hired by the Innocence Project, who was also representing her in the case for her youngest child who she had given birth to while facing murder charges. He wanted to go all the way to trial, while she was willing to settle with Daniel to have at least some visitation.
So when the Wagoner County District Attorney’s Office indicated it was going to press forward with a new trial, Shiloh was appointed a public defender.
Scared about facing another trial and losing her children and life again, Shiloh eventually agreed to a plea deal, in which she would enter an Alford plea to first degree manslaughter in exchange for an 8 year prison sentence with time served. An Alford plea is where a defendant does not admit they committed a criminal act, but the evidence at trial would likely result in a guilty verdict.
“I’ve been in the justice system for too long and I’m not going to go down that easily,” she said. “This DA is so wrong. All the evidence shows this was an accident and I’m innocent. And yet he refuses to do the right thing and dismiss the case. That’s what they should have done.”
Everyone involved was tired of reliving the pain of Davis’s death. Amber and Daniel both agreed to the plea deal when asked by the district attorney’s office.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to get more justice for my son,” Amber said. “We did get some justice for him, but it was either she had a chance of walking out free and clear or we offer her a deal where she still has a felony … and she’s on probation for 10 years.
“The fact she took the plea deal she took, pretty much admits she did do it, in my mind.”
During the hearing to accept the plea deal, Shiloh said she wanted to read a statement she had written, but her attorney advised her against it.
“She was afraid if I said anything or did anything besides just being humble and quiet, then it might cause them to pull the plea and take it to trial, and I don’t want to risk that again,” Shiloh said. “Not that people aren’t good and mean well, I just think you can’t find an unbiased jury in a case like this. They’re always going to want someone to be punished if a child dies for any reason.
“I’ve already done 8 years. I don’t want to go back and fight another 8 years to be free.”
Though she felt that pleading guilty was a bitter pill to swallow and a felony conviction meant she would not be allowed to have her nursing license reinstated for at least half a decade, after 8 years, all Shiloh said she wanted was to be with her family again.
“I felt it was the best option for my family. Everyone’s tired. Financially, I’m depleted. My son’s tired. He just wanted it over so we wouldn’t have it over our shoulders all the time,” she said.
“I cried. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to say I’m guilty for something I didn’t do. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s not justice. But it’s closure.”
Davis would have been 13 years old this year. And Amber said she is still trying to work through the pain and guilt of letting him go to dad’s house early that has haunted her since his death.
She feels justice was only partially served.
“I never got to spend more than 14 months with him. Now she’s out and getting to spend time with one of her children,” Amber said. “I don’t feel like they (the first jury) got it wrong at all and I don’t feel like they didn’t even have to sit and talk about it for very long because they all agreed about what they heard – that she had shaken him.”
Shiloh said she often finds her thoughts returning to those women who are still in prison, the ones who were so happy for her that day she found out she was going home. She hopes to eventually become certified as a paralegal to work on wrongful convictions, and to be involved with prison ministry to give hope to those who may have lost it.
“I want to tell my story and I want to tell them to keep hope. Because yeah, it’s a messed-up system, but that doesn’t mean it won’t change. It doesn’t mean that things can’t get better or you can’t use that time to benefit yourself or your children,” she said, her voice turning to almost a whisper as she fought back tears.
“I made the most of what I was given, even though it was the short end of the stick. And I hope that speaks to my children,” she said. “And I hope they learn from that. That, no life isn’t fair, and sometimes horrible stuff is going to happen to you. But to come out on top even if you lose, lose with grace, because you can still be a good person. No matter what people think of you, just keep doing good.”