8. The Decision to Plea by Way of Alford
A video was created of Dr. Gilliland explaining her findings in detail. The video included a recreation animation of Franklin’s suffocation, excerpts from Franklin’s medical records corroborating the suffocation and over a half hour of detailed testimony by Gilliland.
The video also explained incidental injuries that were not related to Franklin’s death but were present at autopsy. This included a tiny rectal tear, likely from repeated thermometer insertion or stool wiping, an old rib fracture from a car accident months earlier and other minor injuries that were likely caused by the traumatic and extensive rescue effort such as a scratch on Franklin’s leg and a small cervical ligament injury. By the end of the video, which can be viewed on YouTube, anyone would know the true cause of Franklin’s death. Accidental suffocation and not abuse.
The video was sent to Currituck County District Attorney Andrew Womble with the hope that he would reconsider the case and dismiss the charges against Tom. DA Womble reviewed the video. It did not change his mind despite the undeniable credibility of Dr. Gilliland. He fixed his conviction on Tom’s guilt based on a collection of letters Tom sent to his family when he was in jail and believed what doctors had told him; that he had killed his son. He didn’t know how, but he began to question anything he ever did with his young boy. His only conclusion was at some point he must have been too rough with his son. Everyone knew it wasn’t true, but Tom was in the depths of deep depression and despair. He vented to his family. The jail intercepted his letters and made copies of them.
The DA’s office considered the letters a confession. Nothing could be done to change their mind. Not even the opinion of their own knight in shining armor, Dr. Gilliland. And so, Tom remained charged with his son’s murder. Facing life in prison without parole if a jury agreed with the DA and not with Dr. Gilliland.
A trial date was set for the week before Thanksgiving 2021. As November began, Tom prepared for a jury to determine his fate. But then a curveball came his way. Undoubtedly as a result of Dr. Gilliland’s video and efforts. For three years, the only offer for Tom was to plead to the indicted charge of murder with a massive jail sentence. Suddenly, in that second week of November, the deal changed.
In a dramatic pivot, the DA said they would consider a plea of voluntary manslaughter. In exchange the DA would agree to a sentence with a minimum of 5 years in prison.
This was a rare departure from the usual plea offer on murder cases in North Carolina, which still has the death penalty. Five years? On a murder charge? Tom was facing life without parole. There was a caveat: Turn the plea down and Tom would have to go to trial in two weeks.
Tom was 34 years old. Laura was seven months pregnant with their second child. He was a Pennsylvania man born and raised, facing trial by jury in North Carolina, accused of murdering his baby son. If he lost he would die in jail. The family had balanced the risk and it left no choice for Tom; He had to take the deal.
But there was one condition. Tom would agree to plead guilty but he would never say he intentionally killed his son. He knew it was not true. He knew what happened was a tragic accident. The mechanism for this predicament is known as the “Alford Plea.”
In the wake of Tom's Alford Plea (where he maintains his innocence), he had just two weeks to sort out his affairs before his incarceration. Taking the plea ensured Tom would be home by the time his daughter reached the age when she could create lifelong memories. In this way, he wouldn't miss her prom, graduation, or wedding.
As November 2021 drew near, Tom informed the Bailey's he would be taking an Alford Plea. This was the only way to be a part of his daughter's life instead of taking a chance on a life sentence if he were to go to trial. The Bailey's offered their love and support and even drove down to North Carolina to plead for a lesser sentence to the judge. The Bailey’s told Tom that when he comes home he has a job waiting for him.
On November 14, 2021, Tom drove from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, with his wife Laura, to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter for the death of their 5-month-old son Franklin. Behind them on the highway was a train of cars filled with baby Franklin’s family, both his mother’s side and his father’s side, all of them to support Tom.
Just a week earlier Tom and Laura got married. Tears of joy streamed down their faces on that Friday in Hershey, Pennsylvania. That day they were a couple bound forever by marriage, expecting a baby and surrounded by loved ones. Ironically the wedding was performed in the Pennsylvania County Courthouse. Now, they were on their way to a different courthouse where Tom would be taken away.
On November 15, 2021, in open court, surrounded by support from every single one of Franklin’s family members, including Laura, Tom pled guilty.
The plea itself was short. Tom acknowledged he was pleading guilty. The judge explained that although the plea was according to Alford, and Tom was maintaining his innocence, he would be considered guilty in the court of law and sentenced according to the range for voluntary manslaughter. Tom acknowledged and agreed with the Judge’s warning, which was required. Then, the Judge listened to family member after family member beg for mercy. They included Franklin’s maternal Grandmother and paternal grandmother, Tom’s employer and most emotionally Laura. All of them praised Tom as a father and insisted that he had never hurt a hair on Franklin’s head. The Judge dutifully listened, but never budged.
After hours of testimony from those supporting Tom, and no one testifying against him, the Judge imposed the expected sentence of five years. Tom was escorted through the front entrance of the courthouse by sheriff’s officers. His family members wailed with audible sorrow and as they watched him disappear, their request for a last hug was denied.
He is currently serving his sentence in a North Carolina prison. His family talks to him daily. Counting down the days until he can come home.