Michael Beard wants to be a lawyer—and these days, he says he has plenty of inspiration.
The Cuyahoga County, Ohio resident was 26 years old when he found his six-month-old daughter unresponsive in the middle of the night at her mother’s home.
He never imagined that his routine late-night visit after work would make him the prime suspect in the toddler’s death and cost him a year of life while prosecutors built a case against him.
His motive? Prosecutors told jurors that the state-trained nurse’s aide wanted to have sexual intercourse with the child’s mother and suffocated his own daughter in efforts to make her cry and wake up his ex-girlfriend.
Beard, now 28, was finally acquitted on July 1 of the charges that uprooted his life, took his freedom, and landed him on a website for men who have murdered and abused their children.
The case might have taken a different turn—and Beard might have spent15 years to life in prison—if it weren’t for a car insurance company’s device he installed, forgot about, and eventually uncovered a year later.
Born five weeks premature, Lynniah Marie Beard was making progress and seemed to have a full life ahead when her father found her not breathing on May 8, 2011. Even then, she held on for more than a month before passing away on June 21, 2011 at the Cleveland Clinic.
The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the toddler’s death a homicide in January 2012 due to the encephalopathy, or brain damage, that occurred as the child asphyxiated.
Michael Cheselka Jr., Beard’s attorney, said that as a premature baby, Lynniah had failed to hit several important developmental milestones, such as being able to hold her head up sufficiently on her own while awake.
This made for a dire situation when the child, fussy and sick with an untreated double ear infection, was placed in a baby swing by her mother. At some point she hunched over in an awkward position, cutting off her air supply.
Cheselka proposed this scenario in court and said that the coroner admitted on the witness stand that he never fully considered all the ways the baby could have died.
“I said ‘the baby probably suffocated in the swing. You had to rule it a homicide because Lynniah did not put herself in the swing,’” Cheselka told the AFRO. “The coroner said ‘you’re absolutely right.’”
Chelselka said that, as seen in this case, “Every homicide is not a murder. Homicide means ‘caused the death of another.’”
Beard wasn’t with his daughter the day she died, nor present when her mother placed her in the swing. Still, police became suspicious at the hospital on the night of the accident when Beard gave two different names for the seat where he found Lynniah, saying both “car seat” and “swing.” However, several versions of car seats can be fixed onto frames and become a baby swing.
Cheselka said the case took another turn when an unlikely device saved his client from the possibility of more than a decade of hard prison time.
Months before the incident, in an attempt to save money, Beard installed Snapshot, a device offered by Progressive to monitor driving habits and brake usage each month and potentially reward drivers with savings.
As it turned out, Beard’s driving made him ineligible for any rewards. But, crucially, he forgot to return the device after 30 days.
After being indicted for his daughter’s murder in May 2012, Beard said a friend was trying to do a diagnostic test to figure out why Beard’s vehicle’s “check engine” light was on.
“He said, ‘something is right here,’ he took it out and gave it to me—I was dumbfounded,” Beard said. “I couldn’t believe it had been in the car the whole time. I knew if I could retrieve the information I could prove I wasn’t there. Progressive told me that after so long they usually clear the information—but when they told me they still had it, ‘Oh my God’ was all I could say.”
The information on the device showed that Beard shut off his car at his ex-girlfriend’s house at 4:44 a.m. after his graveyard shift at a local hospital. Three minutes later, at 4:47 a.m., the car was back on and rushing an unresponsive Lynniah to Lakewood Hospital, showing that Beard was at the home only long enough to find his daughter and depart with her.
Cheselka said he handed over the Snapshot information to state prosecutors, but they ignored the information. Instead, they offered three plea deals to his client, who remained imprisoned for the better part of nine months. When it was clear Beard wouldn’t get a speedy trial, Cheselka said the state finally allowed bail and four months of house arrest leading up to his trial this June.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office declined to provide an explanation of their charges or theories in Beard’s case, nor did they respond to requests for interviews with authorities that handled the case.
As a result of the charges against him and the time he spent awaiting trial, Beard said he cannot find work to support his other children and a baby he has on the way. He hopes to eventually take up law in an effort to help others who might not be lucky enough to be exonerated by chance, and a bit of technology.
Beard hopes to at some point be able to travel and tell his tale of being falsely accused of murder, felony assault, and child endangerment.
“Being acquitted was okay, but my life is no longer mine,” Beard told the AFRO. “And the fact remains that my daughter is still gone. I’ll never forget Lynniah.”