No criminal charges in frozen-infant case
PUNTA GORDA — The State Attorney’s Office has decided not to pursue criminal charges against Jessica Smallwood, who gave birth to a stillborn baby in January that police discovered in a freezer in her garage.
According to Assistant State Attorney Shannon Doolity, the baby would have to have been born alive in order to charge Smallwood with homicide.
Trace amounts of cocaine also were found in the baby’s system, but Doolity said case law prohibits prosecution of a mother who transmits illicit substances in utero to a fetus. She also said storage of the body in the freezer does not warrant a criminal charge.
“I have no evidence of how, or who, put the fetus in the freezer,” Doolity added.
On Jan. 30, Smallwood, 27, was admitted to Charlotte Regional Medical Center with severe vaginal bleeding. Hospital staff began to question her medical condition, and later determined she had given birth to a child, although she denied it to hospital staff, and later to authorities.
A search of her home on Boca Grande Avenue turned up the body of a female infant frozen solid inside a freezer. A trash bag full of bloody clothing and bedding also was discovered in the garage.
Smallwood’s three other children were removed from the home temporarily by the Department of Children and Families. Smallwood’s boyfriend, Kevin Garcia, denied having any knowledge of her pregnancy. The children were returned to Smallwood after the investigation was closed, and Garcia was never charged or considered a suspect.
Smallwood could not be reached for comment, but her attorney, Kevin Shirley, noted that the event and the ensuing investigation have taken a toll on Smallwood and her family, and that once the emotional impact of the report subsides, they’re hoping to get back to normal.
Although Smallwood gave differing accounts of what happened during the child’s birth, Shirley said it’s impossible to know what the impact of such an event would have on an individual.
“When the dust settled, maybe she could have done something differently, but it doesn’t appear likely,” Shirley said.
Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert “Butch” Arenal said his department investigated the matter for six months and turned its findings over to the SAO in July. He said this type of investigation was a first for his department. He added that despite the “legislative complications” connected with charging Smallwood with a crime, he was disappointed they couldn’t make something stick.
Autopsy results showed the infant had never taken a breath.
“When the facts just don’t add up, you want to make sure you answer every question,” Arenal said. “Unfortunately, for the public, I’m not sure we’re able to provide those answers.”
Smallwood is a Charlotte County Public Schools employee, formerly working as a paraprofessional at Peace River Elementary School. She was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation, according to spokesman Mike Riley, but returned to work on Aug. 2 at a school district warehouse. Smallwood does not have any interaction with kids or students now, Riley added.
Shirley said Smallwood anticipates getting her job back as a paraprofessional, but did not know if she would return to Peace River Elementary.
Shirley also said Smallwood and Garcia are still together, and that DCF is no longer investigating the family.