N.C. Medical Examiners

Petition urges prosecutors to re-examine Gaston baby’s death

Friends and family members have launched a petition drive urging Gaston County prosecutors to re-examine the death of Isabella Nealy, a 4-month-old baby who died under mysterious circumstances last May.

An autopsy report said Isabella had reportedly been placed face down in her bassinet – a sleep position experts consider too dangerous for infants. Her mother, apparently intoxicated, had been passed out on a nearby couch, the autopsy states.

Samantha Cothern, Isabella’s mother, had for several days treated the baby’s runny nose with medicine labeled for children at least 4 years old, according to a medical examiner’s report.

But county prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges after the medical examiner’s office ruled that it could not determine how the baby died.

The petition urges the county district attorney’s office to take a fresh look at the case, and to exhume Isabella’s body if necessary, says organizer Angela Alexander, a family friend. More than 800 people have signed the petition so far, Alexander said.

“I want to see an accurate cause of death,” Alexander said. “ … If they open the door on the cause of death, I think they’re going to find there’s more to this than we thought.”

Alexander said she hopes to collect at least 1,000 signatures and to present the petition to county District Attorney Locke Bell.

Bell could not be reached Friday. But he told the Observer last month that Cothern had reportedly consumed alcohol and taken drugs before Isabella died. But that alone, Bell said, “does not show that she did anything” to cause the baby’s death.

The medical examiner’s inability to determine a cause of death has created an investigative challenge for police and prosecutors, Gaston County Police Capt. Jay Human previously told the Observer. Human also noted that Cothern had asked two other adults in the house to watch Isabella the night before the baby was found not breathing.

Flawed investigation

A recent Observer story pointed to problems in the investigation into Isabella’s death.

Gaston County police said they suspected that Isabella might have been neglected before she died May 25.

But Carol Pinkard, the local medical examiner responsible for investigating Isabella’s death, did not visit the Bessemer City trailer where she died. The examiner’s report also omitted key facts, failing to mention that another of the mother’s babies had died unexpectedly years earlier.

Cothern could not be reached last week. She declined to comment in December, when reporters visited her home in Gastonia.

Relatives say the medical examiner didn’t talk to them until after she finished her report. It wasn’t until a family friend called with new information, they say, that the medical examiner learned about the previous baby’s death in 2003 – and that state social services officials had removed two other children from Cothern’s custody.

Cothern’s previous baby – a 3-month-old boy named Brendan – died in July 2003. The medical examiner did not go to the death scene, and family members said he did not interview them. The state medical examiner’s office concluded that Brendan – who until then, family members say, had been healthy – died from sudden infant death syndrome.

Experts say medical examiners are supposed to call deaths SIDS only after a thorough scene investigation, an autopsy and a review of the baby’s medical history have ruled out all other causes.

A recent Observer series revealed that the state’s medical examiners often fail to follow crucial investigative steps, raising questions about the accuracy of thousands of death rulings.

A follow-up story showed that, by some measures, medical examiners investigate infant deaths even less rigorously than those of adults – and less thoroughly than they did a decade ago.

In 2013, medical examiners visited death scenes in just 2 percent of infant death cases, compared with 7 percent in 2003, an Observer analysis found. When investigating adult deaths, medical examiners went to the scene 9 percent of the time in 2013.