KINGSPORT — The mother of a 2-year-old boy who died after climbing into the family car while his parents were sleeping may face a second trial after a jury declared Wednesday that the 12 of them couldn’t agree on whether she should be held criminally responsible for her son’s death.
The jury began deliberating charges of aggravated child neglect and reckless homicide against Shannon Gibson Wednesday afternoon around 5 p.m. at the conclusion of a two-day trial. About three hours later, the jury announced that a verdict could not be reached.
Just before the announcement was made, the courtroom buzzed with high emotions after two men reacted angrily to the presence of a man identified as Gibson’s ex-husband at the back of the courtroom. Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood had just taken the bench, and the bailiff asked everyone to be seated when the two stormed to the back and began talking loudly to the man, towering over him as he sat in his chair.
Within moments, several Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office deputies swarmed in at the bailiff’s request and restored order in the courtroom. The deputies kept a eye for any further outbursts in the courtroom as the jury announced its decision and Blackwood subsequently declared the case a mistrial.
A pair of deputies then escorted Gibson’s ex-husband to his vehicle for his own safety while the remaining deputies briefly detained those who had reacted so violently to his presence inside the courthouse.
Because of Wednesday’s mistrial, Sullivan County Assistant District Attorneys Barry Staubus and Teresa Nelson will have to decide whether the state will try the case again before another jury.
At the close of trial Wednesday, Nelson told the jury in her closing argument that they would have to decide whether the state had met its burden of proof in showing that Shannon Gibson, 37 at the time she was charged, acted recklessly in a manner that put her son Parker’s health at substantial risk.
Beginning in 2004, Nelson said, the Gibsons’ neighbors testified to seeing the boy toddling about unattended. Various witnesses said he’d wandered into a neighboring church parking lot and into some of the neighbors’ yards on occasion.
Besides living next to a church, the Gibsons’ neighbors included a few police officers. Kingsport Police Department Officer Jeff Kendrick testified he’d given the boy ice cream and drinks inside his home when the boy wandered over. Another neighbor said he’d given the boy a toy when he strayed into his yard.
Public Defender Leslie Hale said in her closing arguments that the neighbors’ treats may have encouraged the boy to explore, and that his mother may have felt her son was safe enough in their community even if he did have a habit of going on little adventures.
Nelson and Staubus pointed to the boy’s wandering habits as one of the reasons Shannon Gibson should be held legally responsible for what happened to her son. She knew he could get out of the house, and she knew he liked to play in the car, according to her own statements to investigators, Staubus said.
But Hale drew the jury back to her main argument — that even though Gibson knew about her son’s self-endangering habits, she couldn’t have known when she and her husband laid down after putting her son down for a nap that he would then break his nap, go outside, climb in the car, and stay in the car until he suffered hyperthermia.
Staubus argued that Gibson was criminally responsible because she hadn’t done everything in her power to ensure her son didn’t have a chance of placing himself in harm’s way by getting outside. Had there been dead bolts installed well out of the boy’s reach, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go outside and place himself in grave danger, Staubus said.
Kendrick testified that the boy had played in the car on several occasions, usually honking the horn at some point. But on Aug. 9, 2005, none of the Gibsons’ neighbors saw or heard the boy honking the horn after he climbed in. According to testimony, the car reached a temperature of at least 119 degrees that afternoon, and it is estimated that Parker died in as little as 15 minutes.
Police were called to the Gibsons’ home around 5:30 p.m. after Shannon Gibson and Anthony Gibson, then 34, found Parker unresponsive in the driver’s-side floorboard of their Honda Accord.
The boy’s parents said they found him after they woke up from their nap and discovered he wasn’t in his bed.
They said they’d put him down for a nap around 2 p.m., then took a nap themselves, KPD Detective Melanie Adkins said.
Parker was pronounced dead after being transported to an area hospital.
Shannon Gibson and Anthony Gibson turned themselves in on May 30, 2006, after a Sullivan County grand jury indicted them nearly 10 months after the boy’s death. They were initially indicted as co-defendants, but the prosecution decided to try their cases separately because they’d made statements to investigators that implicated each other.
An announcement in Anthony Gibson’s case is set for April 28. He, too, was indicted on charges of aggravated child neglect and reckless homicide.