The decision on whether a Ringgold, Ga., man will be tried for an infant’s death 18 years ago from a brain hemorrhage and fractured skull is now up to the Georgia Supreme Court.
In 2007, Dale Lee Higenbottom was charged with murder in the death of 2-week-old Christopher Breazeale after the Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Kris Sperry, changed the cause of death to a homicide.
Fifteen years earlier, another GBI medical examiner had ruled the infant’s death an accident.
Higenbottom — whose sister was the infant’s aunt by marriage — now is charged with malice murder, three counts of felony murder; because of how the baby died, one count of cruelty to children in the first degree and two counts of aggravated battery.
Since Higenbottom was indicted in 2009, Public Defender David Dunn has filed a motion to dismiss the case twice, citing the court’s failure to provide the now 34-year-old man with a speedy trial.
“The state’s unreasonable and unjustifiable delay in prosecuting this case” makes it nearly impossible for Higenbottom to defend himself, the most recent motion states.
The motion also points out that the state waited two years to indict Higenbottom on the charges.
On the first appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Jon Wood didn’t give sufficient evidence to dismiss the motion. After Wood gave more evidence, Dunn again appealed his decision and the Supreme Court heard arguments from both sides Tuesday.
The court likely will rule on the case in three to six months, Dunn said.
But no matter the outcome, Dunn said he will argue that Higenbottom is not guilty, he said Thursday.
Lookout Mountain Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton was out of the office Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
On Dec. 20, 1992, Ringgold police were called to 117 Circle Drive on a call of an infant with head injuries, police reports show.
When Former Ringgold Police Chief Charles Lands arrived, another officer was holding baby Christopher and both the officer and Higenbottom told Lands that the boy’s 4-year-old sister had dropped the baby on the concrete, reports state. But the report doesn’t say where the officer first heard the information from.
Higenbottom, who was 15 at the time, had spent the night at the Breazeale’s on their couch, reports show.
Christopher was rushed to the hospital and died eight hours later, his autopsy shows. Medical Examiner Dr. Floyd James ruled his death accidental and Sperry, who was his supervisor, signed the report.
Many interviews were conducted by police, but the case went nowhere. James died in 2004.
In 2007, the case was reopened after a former caseworker with the state’s Division of Family and Children Services contacted investigators and said they should take another look at the case, a sheriff’s office news release said at the time. The worker told investigators she had been bothered for years by the baby’s death.
Sperry was asked to review the baby’s autopsy in June 2007.
“It is my opinion, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the manner of death of this child should have been classified as homicide and not accidental,” Sperry said in a letter sent in 2007 to the Lookout Mountain District Attorney’s office.
He further explained in the letter that, while he signed the original autopsy, he didn’t review the contents because it wasn’t required at the time.
Higenbottom, who was then 30 years old, was arrested that August. Prosecutors claimed Higenbottom killed Christopher by “inflicting head trauma” on the child, the indictment states.
Two weeks after his arrest, Higenbottom was released from Catoosa County Jail on a $100,000 bond.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...