Appeals court dismisses wife's 'confession letter,' upholds father's conviction in infant's death
Roy A. Stephens had hoped for a new trial based on a letter found in his wife’s cell after his Florida trial that he said was confession that she was responsible.
A father convicted of starving a 22-day-old daughter to death will remain behind bars for life after a Florida appeals court rejected his arguments that his young wife confessed responsibility. In an interview, he portrayed himself as a caring father who was unaware the infant — who weighed only 4 pounds — had gone more than a day without nursing.
Roy A. Stephens, 55, of Tennyson, Indiana, had hoped for a new trial, citing what he said was newly discovered evidence after his 2017 conviction in Polk County: a letter found in his wife’s cell after his trial that he characterized as a confession she was responsible and testimony from her cellmate that he said exonerated him.
“I should have been listening to him when he kept telling me to feed her instead of just keep putting the pacifier in her mouth,” said the handwritten letter, dated April 13, 2017. “I know I should have done more to take care of her the right way.”
It added: “My husband was trying to help me, but I wasn’t seeing it at the time,” and “I was the one responsible for her because she was my daughter.”
“I do not want him to spend any time in jail or prison for something that he had no part of,” the letter said.
In a 23-page decision, a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee last week unanimously shot down every one of Stephens’ arguments.
“I don't know where else to turn,” Stephens said after the ruling in an interview by phone and email with the Fresh Take Florida news service from the Liberty Correctional Institution in Bristol, west of Tallahassee.
The appeals court upheld Stephens’ convictions of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter of a child in the death of the infant, Betsey Kee Stephens, who died in December 2014. Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty for Stephens.
His estranged wife, Ruby, 30, pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, on the same charges. Her similar appeals have also failed. Both have no possibility of parole.
Authorities said Betsey was dead, already cold to the touch, when Stephens called 911 from the parking lot of a restaurant in Lakeland, where the family had made a long drive from their home in southwest Indiana to meet Stephens’ sister, Jeanie Stephens, 49, of nearby Fort Meade, for dinner. First responders performed CPR, but she was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
“No parent could look at the victim and determine that she was fine,” the appeals judges wrote, citing testimony from the medical examiner. They said the infant’s bones were visible in many areas, and her skin was hanging and wrinkled because of a lack of fat.
She weighed 4 pounds, about two less than when she was born. The medical examiner said it would have taken roughly 12 days — more than half her short life — being starved for her to lose that much weight.
“It was the worst day of my career,” Officer Bradley Dollison of the Lakeland Police Department remembered in court interviews, describing “complete sadness” and “something that I’ll never forget.”
Nurses and paramedics testified at the trial they had never seen an infant so malnourished as Betsey, describing her as skeletal with sunken eyes. They said it was clear she was already dead “for some period of time” before they arrived at the restaurant, according to court records. The couple’s other two young children appeared normal, they said.
The appeals court cited two pieces of information that resonated with judges: Ruby Stephens said her husband was unhappy because the pregnancy was the result of an extra-marital affair, according to Facebook messages introduced as evidence during the trial, and after the baby had died, Stephens reassured her that he had purchased a $10,000 life-insurance policy from the Gerber Life Insurance Co. on the infant and the couple’s two children.
Witnesses testified at the trial they overheard Stephens tell his wife, “Don’t worry, we have life insurance,” when she expressed concerns about the couple’s finances.
The letter purportedly written by Mrs. Stephens said she slept with a man she identified as “Danny” while Stephens was in the hospital. Prosecutors said the man was Danny Thomas. “Roy Stephens was the baby's father for all intents and purposes,” prosecutor Mark Levine told jurors at the trial. “Danny Thomas was completely, played no role whatsoever in this child's life.”
In the interview, Stephens said his wife’s affair was not a reason to starve Betsey.
“Why would I hurt any child? They are gifts from God,” Stephens wrote in a message from prison to Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. “I loved Betsey as my own. I bought the breast pump the same day she was born with her other things she needed. I am not a bad guy.”
Stephens notified Gerber about Betsey’s death to collect the $10,000 three days after she died. His sister, Jeanie Stephens, said investigators took that out of context, adding that Stephens was planning to cover the financial fallout after the girl’s death.
“I was the one who told him to call the life insurance company and let them know that Betsey passed away,” she said in an interview. “I was trying to take their mind off of the situation at hand and trying to think of ways to help them deal with it.”
The couple’s biological children, R.J. and Rubylyn, live with Jeanie Stephens. She said Gerber never paid the $10,000 life insurance payout, and she has paid all their expenses since 2014.
“The state had told me if I don't adopt these kids, that they have somebody waiting,” she said.
In his legal appeal, Stephens said prosecutors had insufficient evidence against him and added that it was unclear exactly when on the car trip — and where — Betsey died, raising jurisdictional issues. The appeals court ruled against him on both questions.
Ruby had unsuccessfully raised similar issues in her own appeal, arguing that she shouldn’t have been charged with murder and aggravated manslaughter involving a child.
“You can’t charge someone with both murder and manslaughter because it is double jeopardy,” she said in a prison interview, disputing the appeals court’s ruling on the subject. She added: “If she died of starvation or child neglect then the murder charge needs to be dropped, and I need to be resentenced.”
Stephens’ own most significant arguments in his appeal involved what he said were his wife’s admissions. He cited what he described as a jailhouse confession letter that the appeals court said minimized Mrs. Stephens’ culpability by saying she accidentally starved Betsey because of difficulties she had breastfeeding. The appeals judges said it would not have been enough to overturn Stephens’ convictions.
“The letter fails to cast doubt upon the theory that Stephens knew of the victim’s condition and failed to intervene before her death,” judges wrote.
Stephens also said his wife told a cellmate, Alicia Jones, that she did not feed the baby and that the family was driving with the infant already dead. She also reportedly said Stephens was unaware the infant wasn’t nursing.
“She said she really wasn’t breastfeeding the baby, like five minutes here, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, but it takes more,” Jones said in an interview with prosecutors, according to court records. “She just said that Roy was telling her to feed the baby, but she was just giving it just a suck here and a suck there.”
At the trial, Jones declined to testify.
“My wife told one of her cellmates how she hid this from me, and the judge would not let her tell how my wife hid all this from me,” Stephens said.
The appeals court said Mrs. Stephens made the statements when she was “very highly sedated” and that they contradicted other evidence in the case, ruling that her comments were “not sufficiently trustworthy.”
Eight years later, Stephens’ sister said friends and family members had no clue that Betsey was starving during her brief life. She refuses to believe the infant’s death was intentional.
“My brother and sister-in-law knew that if they took a sick baby to me, I would report them myself,” she said. “So why in the heck would they come to Florida and show me a sick baby?”
Stephens doesn’t know what his next legal course might be. He said he longs for the day he can see his surviving children again in person.
“I would like to be a father to my children,” he said. “I don't know what I have anymore. The sad part is when Betsey passed, my two children lost not only their sister but their mother and father.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org