AUBURN, Ala. – When Kay Burdette's 17-year-old son became sick with flu-like symptoms, the faithful mother chose the same prescription she has used for years: prayer.
This time, though, her son Jesse did not recover and Burdette was charged with manslaughter. She pleaded guilty to lesser charges and avoided prison, in part because authorities lost a tissue sample that was crucial to proving that her son died of bacterial pneumonia, which is treatable, rather than viral pneumonia, which generally isn't.
Pale, coughing and weighing only 130 pounds at the end, Jesse died in his mother's bed the night of March 19, 2008. His mom called a friend from their charismatic, non-denominational church, then her daughter. She never called 911 nor sought medical assistance.
"Because of my religious beliefs I trust in God to forgive my sins and for physical healing," she told investigators. "We're not discouraged ... from seeking medical help, but I chose to totally trust God for Jesse's healing. Jesse and I both prayed for his healing."
Burdette had used prayer as an antidote since Jesse was little. Once, he bumped his head on a hearth and Burdette asked a fellow church member to pray for him. Soon, he was acting like nothing ever happened.
Prosecutors initially decided to seek a felony charge that carried a sentence of two to 20 years in prison. Then, Dr. Stephen Boudreau, a medical examiner in the case, informed a prosecutor that the state laboratory couldn't find the tissue sample, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
"I've been trying to go through the slide files to try and find the mislabeled slide, but there are hundreds in each year, and it could be anywhere. What a mess!" Boudreau wrote in an email to a Lee County prosecutor.
There were other problems, too. An investigator had been deployed to Iraq and couldn't testify, and a conviction of a devout Christian mother would be difficult to win in the Bible Belt.
Lee County District Attorney Robbie Treese said case was difficult from the beginning, and wondered how much more Burdette could be punished.
Prosecutors agreed to let Burdette plead guilty in late June to a misdemeanor charge of criminally negligent homicide. Burdette, who cleans houses for a living, could have received a maximum sentence of a year in jail and a $6,000 fine, but a judge gave her a six-month suspended sentence.
"My reason for not giving my son medical treatment was because of his and my conviction of trusting God for healing," Burdette wrote to the judge. "I loved my son dearly and his loss has brought great pain and grief to my heart."
Jesse's father was angry over what happened.
"His death was tragic, but I also hated the fact that his body was cut up ...," David Burdette, Kay Burdette's ex-husband, wrote to prosecutors. "Now part of the evidence that came from that autopsy has mysteriously vanished. ... It is pathetic!"
Problems are not new in the forensic department, which has long battled staffing and budget shortages. In 2004, a forensic pathologist resigned, leaving hundreds of unfinished reports. One of those resulted in a judge refusing to admit an autopsy report in a capital murder case. The defendant ended up being convicted of a lesser charge of murder, which does not carry a death sentence.
Forensics officials did not return emails seeking comment about the Burdette case. Kay Burdette also declined to comment through an attorney.
David Burdette said before Jesse was born, he and his wife visited Sandhill Bible Church, located in the country a few miles from Auburn University. The church seemed fine at first, but he left after about a year because the pastor was too controlling and the members too self-righteous, he said.
The church taught that members should rely solely on prayers, not medicine, for healing, he said, but Kay Burdette and other church members denied that claim to investigators.
David Burdette described himself as a Christian and said he has no doubt that God miraculously heals people.
"I've seen it happen. But God also uses the medical community for healing," he said.
David Burdette grew distant from his family, divorcing his wife in 2000. He learned of Jesse's death only after Kay Burdette's mother called his mother with the news. He went to the funeral home and saw his son in the casket.
"It was the first time I'd seen him since 1994," he said.
In a statement to police, Kay Burdette said her son had been sick for "maybe two weeks before he died." She said Jesse, who was home-schooled like all the children in their church, grew steadily worse, progressing from a slight fever and nausea to coughing and general lethargy.
Kay Burdette called a church friend and her daughter after realizing Jesse was in trouble the night of his death, documents showed. The friend tried to revive the teenager, then called 911.
The coroner requested an autopsy because of the circumstances and Boudreau, the medical examiner, determined that the teenager died of bacterial pneumonia and septicemia, an infection.
"In my opinion, active medical treatment in the early stages of this condition should have been curative. Mr. Burdette, with all likelihood, would have survived," Boudreau wrote in a letter.
The state forensic lab prepared a slide of Jesse's heart tissue to back up Boudreau's explanation, documents showed, but that slide was lost and another sample did not show the same infection.
David Burdette said his son never had a chance to choose to see a doctor because he was so indoctrinated in the ways of his mother and her church.
"He did not choose death over life," he said. "It was not Jesse's fault."
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