Attorney says two dead Wayne County boys might have had same caseworkers

Goal is to look at role of Wayne caseworkers

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 4, 2011 

MONTICELLO — The recent beating death of a Wayne County toddler could become an issue in the case against people charged in the 2009 death of another boy in the county who drank drain cleaner at a mobile home where people allegedly used the chemical to make methamphetamine.

The attorney for one man charged in the meth case is seeking confidential state records about the second dead boy. The goal is to confirm whether the same social workers were assigned to protect both boys, according to the motion from public defender James H. Wren II.

Wren said in the motion he has heard rumors that was the case.

Information from the file on the second boy could demonstrate a repeated failure to protect children from death or injury, according to the motion.

That is relevant because a key part of his client's defense in the meth case is that local social workers were criminally negligent, or worse, in failing to protect the child who drank drain cleaner, Wren said in the motion.

Wren's client, Larry Branham — grandfather of the boy who died in the meth incident — contends he is innocent and instead blames negligence by the social workers in the boy's death, according to the motion.

Two terrible deaths in one small county in a little more than two years, involving the same local office of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, can't be explained as mistakes or accidents, Wren said.

"Instead .... these records are expected to establish a pattern of criminal behavior in failing to protect Wayne County children at risk," Wren wrote in the motion.

Jill Midkiff, spokeswoman for the cabinet, said Wednesday that state officials had not seen the motion and so could not comment.

The two cases at issue involve the deaths of Kayden Shawn Branham and Staten Stephenson.

Kayden, 20 months old, died of respiratory failure on May 30, 2009, soon after he drank Liquid Fire drain cleaner from a cup sitting on a table at a trailer where he and his mother, Alisha Branham, then 14, had been staying.

The caustic chemical can be used in making meth. Several people allegedly had made meth at the trailer earlier on the day Kayden drank the chemical.

State records show social workers had been monitoring the welfare of the boy and his mother since he was born.

The two had been assigned to live with Alisha's mother, Melissa Branham.

However, Alisha later said she moved to the trailer outside Monticello — which her father, Larry Branham, rented — about a month before Kayden died because there was no food, water or electricity at her mother's house.

The state file on Kayden showed there was an indication Melissa Branham tampered with her urine sample in two mandated drug tests in 2008, and social workers had repeated difficulty getting her to show up for drug tests in 2008 and 2009.

The Lexington Herald-Leader filed a lawsuit to get records on Kayden.

Social workers had ample reason to remove the teen mother and her son from Melissa Branham's home before the boy died, attorneys involved in the case have said.

A grand jury indicted Kayden's father, Bryan Daniels, then 19, and others on charges of murder, making meth, drug endangerment of a child and taking part in organized crime. Daniels and the others have pleaded not guilty.

The grand jury charged Larry Branham with complicity to make meth, endangering a child and engaging in organized crime.

The prosecutor, Matthew Leveridge, said Wednesday that Wren and other defense attorneys can pursue other arguments, but the fact is, Kayden died as a result of a meth lab.

The trial in the case is scheduled next month.

Staten — the 18-month-old child whose records Wren is seeking — died July 26. An autopsy showed he had been beaten; among other injuries, his skull was fractured and his stomach was perforated, according to a court record.

His mother, Karla Lord, 20, and her boyfriend, Jared Futrell, 19, have been charged with murder.

A detective said that no one else had an opportunity to hurt the child and that Lord and Futrell could not explain the injuries.

The two have pleaded not guilty.

Wren said he has no specific information about any state records on Staten but that "rumor intelligence" he's gotten indicates social workers Ashley and Brandy Dobbs were assigned as protective workers for him or knew of the need to provide him protection.

Those workers also were involved in Kayden's case, according to the motion.

Wren is seeking an order for prosecutors to tell Circuit Judge Vernon Miniard whether the cabinet was assigned to protect Staten.

If so, Miniard should order the state to turn over the confidential file for use in defending Branham, Wren said.

Miniard could deny the motion.

Wren also filed a motion Wednesday seeking an order to bar Melissa Branham from trying to intimidate her and Larry Branham's oldest daughter, Jessica.

Melissa Branham recently tried to intimidate Jessica Bran ham from testifying for her father, Wren said in the motion.

Larry and Melissa Bran ham are divorced.

Wren said he would withdraw the motion if the prosecutor would confirm that he has told Melissa Branham not to discuss potential testimony and that he has told Branham not to do things that could be seen as intimidating, such as taking her daughter's property without permission or denigrating Larry Branham.

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