This story in today’s Houston Chronicle illustrates the dogged determination of some police officers. This 17-year old case was resurrected after the investigating officer attended a seminar on shaken-baby syndrome.
The dead baby’s father, who went on to become a police officer, albeit with a troubled career, denies any wrongdoing, claiming, as he has all along, that it was an accident.
[Article reprinted in full below]
Dec. 7, 2002, 5:44PM
Baby’s death finally comes to trial
Ex-policeman charged with son’s murder in 17-year-old case
By BETSY BLANEY
SMYER — Gary Goff could never erase the image of the comatose 3-month-old boy he prayed for more than 17 years ago.
He still remembers clearly the day in 1985 when the baby’s father stopped by and asked Goff to pray for Matthew Sharp, who had been hospitalized the night before with head injuries.
Goff, at the time a recent law school graduate serving as interim minister at the Church of Christ in Smyer — across the street from the Sharps’ house — was stunned when he visited Matthew at the Lubbock hospital about 35 miles away.
He recalls the baby looking “almost lifeless” hooked up to so many tubes.
“I can close my eyes today and I can still see Matthew,” said Goff, now Hockley County’s district attorney. “Some things you can never erase. I doubt it will ever leave my mind.”
Matthew died about two weeks later, his death ruled a homicide.
Authorities initially focused on Matthew’s parents. But no charges were filed even though Robert Sharp — at the time a 6-foot-1, 300-pound aspiring police officer — told police that he believed he had injured his son by bouncing him on his lap before the infant had a seizure.
The case wasn’t pursued because prosecutors, who hadn’t seen “shaken-baby cases” in this part of West Texas, were concerned about evidence problems, Goff said.
But the case so haunted Goff that he reopened it last year.
In February, Sharp was charged with murder, which has no statute of limitations. Sharp, whose trial is set to begin Monday in Levelland, says he’s innocent.
“I was willing to go to prison then because I’m responsible for his death, but it was an accident,” Sharp said. “I’m at fault for this, but I didn’t murder my son.”
Prosecutors, however, say Sharp’s story doesn’t add up.
The case took on new life in July 2001, after Goff attended a seminar at which Tarrant County’s medical examiner discussed pathology used in child deaths. For Goff, it was an epiphany.
“He came back and said, ‘See if you can find that case and see if you can do anything with it,’ ” said Todd Smith, Goff’s investigator. ‘ “See if we can tell something now that we couldn’t tell back then.’ ”
Smith found the case file and also found a 1985 Child Protective Services investigation that alleged Matthew died from abuse by his parents.
Goff’s investigation led to a tiny, unmarked grave in Lubbock, where authorities exhumed Matthew’s body one cold, windy morning in January.
A second autopsy revealed discoloration from bruising to Matthew’s right eyelid and the membrane under his skull, evidence of severe trauma.
That finding, plus medical records, the original autopsy and photographs, led the Lubbock County coroner to add “shaken/impact syndrome” to the 1985 finding of blunt force trauma to the head.
The first autopsy was performed by medical examiner Ralph Erdmann, who seven years later pleaded no contest to felony charges of falsifying autopsies and tampering with evidence. The conviction resulted in legal havoc in dozens of West Texas cases where Erdmann served.
Matt Powell, a special prosecutor appointed after Goff recused himself because of his close ties to the case, said Erdmann’s history played into the decision to exhume. Investigators also were hoping to better pinpoint Matthew’s injuries, as symptoms of severe injury to babies can emerge over time.
When Sharp’s trial begins, Powell will try to show that Sharp’s knee-bouncing story doesn’t match the severity of the injuries.
“It takes a lot of force to cause injuries to babies. A lot,” Powell said.
Both parents and a grandparent were in the Sharps’ rented one-bedroom stucco house on March 29, 1985, but Robert Sharp said he was the only one awake when the baby went into a seizure.
“There was a huge hurdle in proving which of three adults in the house was responsible,” Goff said. “You couldn’t single out any of the three beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Sharp, a stay-at-home parent married to a dietitian at nearby Reese Air Force Base, said he placed Matthew in his crib beside the couple’s bed at about 11 p.m.
He said he woke to Matthew’s cry about an hour later and carried him to the bathroom, not wanting to wake his wife.
Sharp said he cooed and caressed Matthew, even bathed him to try to soothe him. When none of that worked, Sharp said he became frustrated.
He lay Matthew face-up on his lap, the baby’s head on his thick knees. Then Sharp began bouncing his legs hard enough to let his feet leave the floor, he said.
“I was trying to get him to quiet down in the wrong way,” Sharp said. “I was an uneducated man.”
When it appeared Matthew was having a seizure, Sharp, frightened that he may have injured him, woke his wife.
“She tried to tell me he was having nightmares, and I said ‘No,’ ” he said.
For weeks after Matthew’s death, the couple faced authorities’ questioning and lie detector tests.
They soon moved out of the house. They were divorced in the early 1990s and haven’t spoken since.
Lisa Copeland, Matthew’s mother and Sharp’s ex-wife, said she has believed all these years that her son’s death was an accident.
“It (the case) was dropped,” said Copeland, who has remarried and has a 9-year-old daughter. “(The district attorney) told me that if we passed the lie detector, that would be the last we’d hear from him. We didn’t hear from him anymore.”
Robert Sharp, in fact, failed a polygraph about what happened that night, said Powell, the special prosecutor. Copeland, who passed the polygraph, said Sharp told her in 1985 that he passed. She was stunned to learn differently.
“No one told me he hadn’t passed it. Otherwise, things would have been different all these years,” Copeland said. “I don’t know what happened that night. He does.”
Ronnie Sharp, the baby’s grandfather who was in the house that night, believes there was no intent to hurt the baby.
“That boy … was the most important thing in (my son’s) life,” he said. “He worshipped the ground the baby laid on.”
Lisa and Robert Sharp buried Matthew a few days after his death. Short on money, they put no marker above his grave.
By the time Sharp faced a murder charge, he had become a police officer. He also was in jail on charges stemming from his brief time as a West Texas cop.
In 2000, after graduating from the University of Houston’s police academy, he landed a part-time job at the department in Pinehurst, about 30 miles north of Houston.
But he was fired after chasing an 18-wheeler into Louisiana and pulling it over, all while off duty, Police Chief Daniel Robertson said.
Sharp found another job in the small Panhandle town of Cactus, arriving in March 2001. He parked his small green-and-white travel trailer outside the police station and called it home.
Within months he faced official oppression charges after two women complained that he issued them trespassing tickets to get them to leave town. He was also charged with indecency by contact with a 9-year-old girl.
Sharp said he let the girl sit on his lap at a movie but denies any wrongdoing.
“There’s a difference between molestation and contact. All I wanted was affection,” he said.
Sharp was arrested in November 2001 and was in the Moore County Jail before he was indicted in Matthew’s death and transferred to the Hockley County Jail.
“When we went into this,” Goff says, “we had no idea he had become a cop.”
Today, Sharp takes full responsibility for his son’s death. He feels his faith has been tested, and that God and Matthew have forgiven him, but he cannot forgive himself.
Sharp says he didn’t commit a crime because it was an accident and he was candid with authorities afterward. He won’t accept a plea bargain and says that sending him to prison now would be “nonsense.”
“There’s nothing the DA could do that would be worse than what I’ve put myself through all these years,” he said. “I don’t care if I’m free or in prison. I’m going to suffer.”
Sharp’s court-appointed defense attorney, Jack Stoffregen of Lubbock, predicts “some real evidentiary problems” for the prosecution — “the main one being this case is so old.”
Stoffregen also plans to highlight the involvement of Erdmann, the disgraced medical examiner.
“His name alone is going to cause some skepticism among jurors or prospective jurors,” Stoffregen said. “It’ll come in somehow.”
Sharp said he plans to take the stand to tell jurors the same story he told 17 years ago.
Sharp’s ex-wife, now living in Carson City, Nev., is looking forward to being there.
“It’s still my son who’s not having birthdays or Christmases. There’s still a little boy who didn’t have a chance to do anything,” she said. “Every little boy I see, I think of him. If Robert ended up doing something he shouldn’t have, he’s going to have to pay for that.”
Goff, who along with others in his office bought a grave marker Matthew’s parents couldn’t afford when he was first buried, says the death of a helpless, defenseless child should not go unpunished, even 17 years later.
“That’s a wrong for which justice has not been served,” he said. “It’s been delayed, but with the advances, the understanding of the process, maybe we can get there now.”