Trial of man accused in fatal ‘shaken baby’ syndrome case delayed due to incomplete death investigation reports

BUCKHANNON – The case of an Upshur County man accused of inflicting fatal traumatic brain injuries on his girlfriend’s two young children has been delayed due to incomplete death investigation reports.

In Upshur County Circuit Court Thursday, 26th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jacob Reger granted a motion filed by Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Hinkle on behalf of the state asking to continue the pretrial hearing of Thomas W. Cunningham, 28, of Buckhannon, until the next regular term of Upshur County Circuit Court.

Cunningham was indicted on two felony counts of death of a child by a guardian or custodian or other person by child abuse during the May 2023 term of Circuit Court. The charges came after a two-year-boy and his one-year-old brother allegedly died from brain injuries suffered while in Cunningham’s care in November 2022.

The children’s mother, Ciera Nicole Gillespie, 26, of Buckhannon, was also indicted for two felony counts of child neglect resulting in death in May 2023.

Hinkle told the court he had filed the motion for continuance because the West Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had not yet issued death investigation reports and post-mortem findings after conducting the autopsies.

Hinkle said he had made multiple attempts to secure those reports, even issuing a subpoena to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner April 19, 2023.

The office then contacted the prosecuting attorney’s office to inform them that the death investigation reports and post-mortem findings were not yet available because samples were submitted to a special laboratory outside the state of West Virginia that could analyze the tissue.

Hinkle noted that there’s nowhere in West Virginia capable of performing that type of analysis.

Cunningham’s attorney, Zachary Dyer, said he had no objection to continuing the case until the next term of court, which begins in September 2023.

Reger acknowledged the serious nature of the case and granted the motion for continuance. Cunningham’s pretrial is now set for 10:45 a.m. Oct. 30, 2023, and jury selection will be Nov. 13, 2023 with the trial set to follow on Nov. 14.

According to the original complaint, on Nov. 28, 2022, when Gillespie, the children’s mother, returned home from Walmart, Cunningham reportedly came running out with the two-year-old, who had blood coming from his nose and mouth and was limp. Upshur EMS was called to the scene and transported both infants to St. Joseph’s Hospital and then Ruby Memorial Hospital.

Upshur County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Rodney Rolenson, the investigating officer, interviewed WVU Medicine staff member Dr. Melvin Wright, who said the manner of death for the two-year-old was “traumatic injury consistent [with] ‘shaken baby’ [syndrome], and that the retinal injuries were the worse he had seen in 10 years,” the file states.

Wright also stated that the injuries suffered by the one-year-old were also significant and also resulted from shaken baby syndrome. Wright told police that “it would have to be violent trauma with immediate incapacitation.

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