15-Month-Old Boy's Death Could Lead To New Law

Posted at 6:46 PM, Mar 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-14 21:01:53-04

A 15-year-old cold case involving the death of a little boy is prompting efforts in the Tennessee legislature to enact a new law.

And the DA hopes that new law will help him finally get to the bottom of what really happened.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates first raised questions more than a decade ago about the death of Jeffry Kelton Skaggs, a 15 month old who died under mysterious circumstances in 2001.

Prosecutors now want to exhume his body for a second autopsy.

But, while they are confident that the facts are on their side, they're worried that the law might not be.

"The first issue that jumped out at us was we were trying to decide where to file the petition. The statute is very poorly worded about that," said District Attorney General Brent Cooper of Summertown.

Cooper's predecessor, Mike Bottoms, had refused to go along with efforts to revisit the autopsy that was completed by medical examiner Dr. Charles Harlan.

Harlan, who later lost his license for incompetence, ruled the blow to the child's head was an accident.

But other experts disagreed.

"We had injuries that did not match the stories, the multiple stories provided," said former state medical examiner Dr. Bruce Levy.

Retired Tennessee Bureau of Investigation director Larry Wallace agreed with the findings of a panel of medical experts.

"The child's actual manner of death was the result of non-accidental trauma, meaning that in the judgment of the authors of this article it was a homicide," said Wallace, referring to a report from the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.

"Murder?" we asked.

"It was murder."

But when the DA in the county where the boy was buried asked permission to exhume the body back in 2001, the child's mother convinced a judge that the law didn't give jurisdiction to that DA.

And Cooper expects a similar argument this time.

"The strongest language in the statute indicated it should be filed where the death occurred," he said. "Well, that's a problem in this case because Kelton, as you know, was lifeflighted to Huntsville and he died in Alabama. I have no jurisdiction in Alabama."

And Cooper said the statute seems to suggest that a body cannot be exhumed if an autopsy was ever performed -- no matter the circumstances.

"We shouldn't be barred from filing this petition and giving Kelton a real autopsy because a bad one was done in the past."

While Cooper is focused on Jeffry Kelton Skaggs' case, he thinks the new law could be used in all sorts of cold cases in the future... where new evidence and new technology comes into play.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You would like for this to be remembered as Kelton's Law?"

"I think that would be neat," Cooper said, "just so his family could point to his death wasn't for nothing, [that] good did come from it."

The bill, being pushed by the DA's Conference, has already passed the state Senate on a 32-to-1 vote.

And it's already cleared a major committee hurdle in the House.

It's possible that it could become law before a judge hears Cooper's petition to exhume the body.

Right now, that's set for the first of April.