Mother charged in death of child

Relates to:
Date: 2004-09-08

Injuries resulted in earlier sentence
Author: Lovemore Masakadza; Staff Writer

DURHAM -- A woman who served more than two years in prison for abusing her adopted child was charged with murder Tuesday, after the girl died from the injuries she received eight years before.

The criminal investigation of Melinda Ann Wilkins began after her adopted daughter Melissa, then 19 months old, was injured Aug. 16, 1995, and taken to Duke Hospital. Investigators said the child was unconscious, suffered a blood clot in the brain, retinal hemorrhaging, a fractured back and a fractured skull, and doctors found evidence of old scars and rib fractures, according to a news release from the Durham Police Department.

In November 1996, Wilkins pleaded guilty to felony child abuse. She later tried to retract her plea, saying in court that she never abused her daughter. She told a judge that she was throwing Melissa in the air while playing with her but became dizzy and didn't catch the child before she hit the floor. The judge rejected Wilkins' efforts to take back her guilty plea.

Wilkins served two years and seven months in prison before being released in July 1999, according to records of the state Department of Correction.

The child lived in residential treatment centers for the rest of her life, the news release said. In June 2003, Melissa died of complications from the injuries she had received nearly eight years earlier, the news release said. She was 9.

But the case was not referred to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner as it should have been, said Dr. John Butts, North Carolina's chief medical examiner. Instead, WakeMed in Raleigh issued a standard death certificate as is the case for anyone who dies of natural causes.

"This child did not die of natural causes," Butts said Tuesday.

Debbie Laughery, WakeMed's director of public relations, said it is up to the attending physician who writes the death certificate to indicate whether a case is to be referred to the medical examiner's office for autopsy. Melissa's medical records could not be located late Tuesday, she said.

It took a year before the chief medical examiner learned of the death. The body had been cremated, so the medical examiner's office had to carry out its investigation using medical records. The office determined that the child had died of traumatic complication and referred the case to police.

Police were notified of the death July 29. Investigator Art Holland said that since the death has been ruled a homicide, "it will be a whole new criminal procedure." The fact that Wilkins has already served a sentence for child abuse doesn't prevent her from being charged with murder now that the child has died, Holland said.

"If we had been notified when she died, she [Wilkins] would have been charged then," Holland said.

Wilkins, 40, was arrested Tuesday morning and taken to the Durham County jail.

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