The S.C. Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of a Beaufort woman who was sentenced to 35 years for the death of her toddler son.
Paris Avery was accused in 2006 of giving her 15-month-old son, Ra'Saan Avery Young, too much Atarax, an oral prescription antihistamine used to relieve his itching from eczema.
She was found guilty of homicide by child abuse by a Beaufort County jury on May 21, 2008, and was sentenced the following day to 35 years in prison by Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the state failed to prove that Avery "acted with extreme indifference to human life," which is required for someone to be guilty of homicide by child abuse.
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"We find the State failed to submit evidence indicating Avery was aware of the gravity of the danger in overmedication so as to prove she acted without regard as to whether Victim lived or died," the court's opinion reads.
During her trial, a toxicologist testified that a blood sample taken from the child during an autopsy showed hydroxyzine levels about six times the expected concentration for someone his age.
Before the start of her sentencing hearing, Beaufort County chief public defender Gene Hood moved for a retrial, saying the state failed to prove Avery acted with "extreme indifference to human life."
Mullen was unmoved by Hood's argument and denied the motion.
"The jury paid close attention to the critical evidence in this case, and that evidence was adequate to convict Ms. Avery," Mullen had said. "The fact that there was six times the normal level of hydroxyzine in this child's body would speak to the extreme indifference requirement, and as such, I will let the jury's verdict stand."
Mullen heard testimony from several people, including Avery.
"I maintain my innocence, and I just want the court to know that I love all my kids," Avery had said. Ra'Saan was the youngest of Avery's three sons.
The Supreme Court's decision to overturn the conviction was not unanimous. Justice John Kittredge dissented, saying the motion for retrial was "properly denied."
But the court's majority wrote that the state's sole evidence was the medicine bottle's label that indicated it should be taken by mouth every six hours as needed. The opinion said that "this does not amount to substantial circumstantial evidence from which a jury could conclude Avery acted without care as to whether Victim lived or died."
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said in a statement he would be "reviewing the Supreme Court's opinion and our options."
Avery's mother, Patricia, said she was in "sheer delight" when she saw an email Wednesday morning notifying her of her daughter's successful appeal.
"I'm very thankful for the Supreme Court ruling in my daughter's favor and righting a wrong," she said. "I'm thankful for her attorneys, too. I don't know where we'd be without them."
Patricia Avery said her daughter would likely be released in about two weeks and would be flying to Tacoma, Wash., to reunite with her family. She said she hasn't seen her daughter in nearly three years, near the time the appeals process began.
"I haven't seen her since I moved back to Tacoma, which is where Paris grew up," she said. "When I moved, the appeal process was still in its infancy stages. We held onto our faith and remained optimistic, and we knew she had a good chance of winning an appeal."
Patricia Avery said her family would start to work to reunite Paris Avery with her children, who are in the care of their paternal grandparents.