Innocent Sailor Charged with Murder

I first met Petty Officer Amy Peterson in early September of 2005. I had recently returned from a deployment in Iraq where military men and women were fighting for their lives every day on the battlefield; Amy Peterson had just found victory in the fight for her own life but on a different kind of battlefield – a military courtroom in Norfolk, Virginia. Amy, a perky little redhead topping the scales at a whopping 117 pounds with an outgoing personality and wicked sense of humor, looks a good 5-10 younger than her 28 years but has already endured several lifetimes worth of pain, heartbreak and emotional distress. The mental anguish this young woman has gone through is more than enough to convince the strongest man to curl up in the fetal position and lose all faith in the world, but somehow, Amy manages to maintain her sanity.

Amy Peterson enlisted in the United States Navy a year after graduating from high school. She scored well on the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) and was offered a career in the intelligence field as a Cryptologist. Following basic training at Great Lakes Recruit Training Command in Illinois, Amy attended the Naval Technical Training Center for Cryptologists at Cory Station in Pensacola Florida. While at Cory Station Amy met and started dating fellow student Eddie Walker. In May of 1997, shortly before graduation from the second phase of their schooling in Arizona, Amy and Eddie, both 20, were married. Following graduation, both shipped out for their first assignment in Misawa, Japan.

Less than a year after their arrival in Japan, Amy became pregnant with the newlywed’s first child. On July 2nd, 1998 Amy gave birth to a healthy baby girl – Alexis Lorraine Walker. Amy, however, did not fare the birth as well as her daughter. The labor and c-section delivery were rough on her petite body and caused several complications. Amy lost a significant amount of blood and required numerous transfusions before doctors were able to stabilize her. Luckily her body was young and strong and Amy quickly recovered from the ordeal. Doctors informed her, however, that due to the trauma dealt to her reproductive system, she might never have the ability to conceive or carry another child to term.

Amy and Eddie doted on their baby girl, but Alexis soon became the sole source of happiness in their marriage. Both worked separate shifts on a 24/7 watch-floor and spent little time together. Their hectic work schedules combined with the stresses of a new baby contributed to the disintegration of their marriage. In the midst of acknowledging her marital strife and a looming divorce, Amy discovered that she was pregnant yet again – Alexis was less than a year old. Amy reluctantly informed Eddie of the pregnancy and was not surprised when he suggested the option of abortion. Amy refused to consider terminating the pregnancy and the couple prepared for the birth of their second child.

In December of 1999 Amy gave birth to a son, Donovan Anthony Walker, born in the same hospital as his sister. Following the birth of their son, Amy and Eddie’s marriage continued to crumble. As with most struggling couples, a new baby only added to the strain on the already volatile union. Negotiations for a divorce were discussed even prior to Donovan’s birth. Although the marriage had reached an emotional dead end, the couple planned to remain legally married in order to ensure the Navy transferred them together to their next duty station in Hawaii. Once relocated, they would file to officially dissolve their marriage.

In February of 2000, a few weeks before the move to Hawaii, Amy awoke to a frigid Japan morning and prepared to leave for work. Eddie, who had the day off and had already reverted back to the life of a bachelor, had not yet returned home from a night of partying with his friends. Merely a few minutes before Amy had to leave for work, Eddie stumbled in still partially intoxicated. Amy had been ignoring Eddie’s transgressions for several months by this time, so she was relatively un-phased by his behavior and was simply relieved that he made it home in time to watch the children, allowing her to leave for work.

As if they were merely acquainted coworkers conducting a shift change, Amy relayed a brief pass down to her husband on the status of their children. She explained that Alexis, now 18 months, and Donovan, exactly 8 weeks, were both sound asleep in their respective beds and then she rushed off to work. It would be the last time Amy saw her son alive.

Eddie passed out on the couch in an alcohol induced sleep shortly after Amy left. He awoke a couple of hours later and checked on the children. When Eddie looked into his son’s crib he found Donovan’s lifeless body, already cold to the touch. It is speculated, and suggested by Eddie himself, that he fed Donovan a bottle of formula before falling asleep, but neither investigators nor Eddie due to his impaired state, were ever able to substantiate this allegation. The only concise fact related to that dismal morning is that Donovan’s body was already in an acute state of rigor mortis when paramedics arrived on the scene. An autopsy was performed and the cause of death was documented as a classic case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Eddie was riddled with guilt and Amy was pushed to the edge of a nervous breakdown, yet she never blamed Eddie for their son’s death. The family returned to the States for the funeral and, since they were within weeks of their previously scheduled transfer to Hawaii, never returned to Japan. The Navy command at Misawa arranged to have the contents of their apartment packed up and shipped out to Hawaii.

Over the next few months, Amy and Eddie dealt with their grief as well as they could. The couple even reconsidered their plans for a divorce and attempted to reconcile based on their shared emotional suffering. Amy slipped into an abysmal state of paranoia and struggled with anxiety attacks. She never allowed Alexis out of her sight and suffered from insomnia due to the fear that something would happen to her daughter while she slept.

Once the family was settled in Hawaii, both Amy and Eddie returned to work and the couple eventually filed for divorce. Before the divorce was finalized, the woman Eddie had been having an affair with discovered that she was pregnant with Eddie’s child. Amy maintained custody of Alexis but never denied Eddie the opportunity to see his daughter. Alexis often spent weekends with her father and Amy and Eddie remained civil with each other throughout the divorce proceedings for the sake of their daughter.

After three years in Hawaii, both Amy and Eddie were due for another duty station transfer. Since they were no longer married, they were unable to file for any sort of spousal co-location through the military and feared they would have to separate Alexis from one of her parents and share her across the globe. Luck happened to shine on them for once and both Amy and Eddie received orders for Fort Meade, Maryland.

A few months after her arrival at Fort Meade, Amy received a message to meet with two special agents of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). When Amy arrived to the meeting, the agents informed her that a formal investigation into the death of her son was being conducted based on suspicions of foul play. Unbeknownst to Amy, a second autopsy had been performed on her son’s body and the cause of death had been revised from SIDS to the “sudden death of an infant; possible causes to include asphyxiation/suffocation”.

Amy automatically assumed NCIS suspected Eddie of neglect because of his obvious state of intoxication the morning of Donovan’s passing. Amy knew in her heart that Eddie was an excellent father and was not responsible for their son’s death, so she was prepared to defend her ex-husband against any allegations of foul play. However, Amy was completely blind sided when the agents revealed that she, in fact, was the prime suspect in the murder of her son. The time of death had been calculated as early morning – before Amy left for work and prior to Eddie’s return home. Amy suddenly found herself in the midst of a horrible nightmare from which she could not wake.

For nearly seven hours, the agents abusively interrogated Amy to the point of almost complete emotional and physical incapacitation. She was denied the opportunity to eat, drink or use the restroom. The agents told Amy, “We already know what happened. We just want to give you the chance to come clean and clear your conscience.” They implied that she would face a less severe punishment and treatment if she simply admitted her guilt. For fear that it would imply that she was guilty, Amy waived her right to a lawyer and battled the agents on her own. She adamantly professed her innocence for several hours but the agents refused to surrender. With her skin covered in hives and her eyes nearly swollen shut from crying, the agents handed Amy a pen and paper and told her what to write. Amy impassively copied down a dictated confession and signed the sworn statement. That evening, NCIS formally charged Amy Peterson with the first-degree murder of her son. Amy was immediately escorted to the Brig in Norfolk, Virginia but was given the opportunity to utilize a cell phone on the drive from Maryland. She phoned her mother and informed her of the situation and told her to find a lawyer.

Amy spent six days in the Brig before she was finally released with the assistance of the civilian lawyer her family tracked down and hired. The Navy did not assign a JAG lawyer to Amy’s case until after she was released from the Brig. After her release, Amy was transferred back to Fort Meade where her Commanding Officer restricted her to the base and placed her on a “mock” pre-trial confinement within the Navy barracks. Alexis was sent to Wisconsin to stay with Amy’s parents and Amy’s lawyer did his best to secure Amy’s release from the pre-trial confinement. Months of preparation lay ahead of the defense team and they did not want to see Amy confined for the entire time. The Commanding Officer finally authorized Amy’s release after 56 days of confinement.

The military pushed for an immediate court martial but the defense team successfully appealed for a delayed trial date in order to sufficiently research and build their case. During the initial interrogation, Amy offered numerous times to take a polygraph as a means to prove her innocence, but the agents refused to even consider this, saying, “you don’t want to do that.” Although polygraphs are not permissible in court, Amy’s lawyer arranged for her to take a polygraph and, should she pass, had a plan for “working” the results into the trial. Amy was administered three separate polygraphs and passed all with flying colors.

Amy’s defense team, now composed of her civilian attorney and two JAGs, researched and dug through four years worth of NCIS investigative paperwork and were almost instantly blinded by the blatant discrepancies in the prosecution’s case. The only element that seemingly threatened to sink the defense’s case was Amy’s signed confession, but this was weighing on their case like a ton of bricks. The calculations used to assess the time of death were reviewed and it was discovered that they were based on the body of a 150-pound grown man instead of an 8-week-old infant, consequently negating the prosecution’s claim that Donovan’s death occurred before Amy left for work. But even this factor combined with the results of the polygraphs was not enough to put Amy’s defense team at ease. The main breakthrough for the defense appeared when it was discovered that the bassinet Donovan was in at the time of his death had been recalled and attributed to the suffocation of seven other infants. All victims were documented as having markings from the mesh siding of the basinet that were identical to those observed on Donovan’s body.

In August of 2005, five years after the death of her son, Petty Officer Amy Peterson’s court martial for the murder of her son Donovan Walker commenced. The prosecution offered several plea bargains including some as mild as a seven-year sentence with opportunity for a good behavior parole in less than five years. Amy’s attorney even attested that the plea bargain offered was exceptionally lenient and recommended she consider accepting the offer, but Amy adamantly refused to plead guilty to killing her child. When the prosecution found out that Amy had not accepted any of their offers, they sought the maximum punishment – the death penalty.

The court martial proceedings continued for more than four weeks. Former supervisors, coworkers and friends of Amy’s were flown in from around the world to testify in the trial. A Master Chief Petty Officer and former neighbor of Amy’s was tasked by the defense to be the one to work the polygraph results into his testimony. While being questioned on the witness stand by the prosecution, he blurted out, “She’s passed three polygraphs! What more do you people want?” Of course the prosecution earnestly objected to this statement but the seed was already planted and a considerable shadow of doubt crept into the minds of the jury.

On 25 August 2005, after four hours of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict. Petty Officer Peterson rose and stood at attention before the court in her dress white uniform as the verdict was recited. “Not guilty on all accounts”. Amy collapsed in relief and her family and friends rejoiced. Unfortunately, Amy was not yet in the clear; she had won the battle but the war was far from over.

In order to finance their daughter’s legal expenses, Amy’s parents were forced to mortgage their home, putting Amy $75,000 in debt to her family. Also, although Amy was acquitted, the Navy still harbored some doubts regarding Amy’s parental capabilities. A Family Advocacy case declaring Amy an abusive and unfit mother remained active and a Case Review Board recommended that administrative action be taken against Amy to have her removed from the military. Amy, a single mother who has served nearly 10 honorable years in the Navy, is far from financially or professionally prepared for a quick severance from her military career. She filed for an extension on her contract to allow her to remain on active duty an extra 10 months beyond her separation date. Amy is determined to see the child abuse case against her absolved and be reinstated the valuable top-secret security clearance that was stripped from her when she was charged.

As of today, the Navy is still debating both the family advocacy case as well as whether or not to reinstate Amy’s security clearance. Amy continues to persevere and refuses to back down from her fight until she has cleared her name to the best of her ability and regained what she can that has been stripped from her, but her old life and reputation will never be fully reinstated. Amy contemplated adoption following the death of Donovan, but now there is no agency in the world that will approve Amy with such a felony charge on her record. Above all though, the ominous dark cloud that Amy acknowledges will forever cast a shadow upon her life is, “No matter how hard I fight or how many battles I win, there is nothing I can do that will ever bring Donovan back. I might make it through this hell, but he’s still gone forever.”

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