Updated: Mar 1
I’ve covered a few cases in the past where a person was convicted of murder, but doubts rose later about their guilt. I think this is the first one I’ve talked about where someone was convicted and actually later exonerated. Let’s talk about Patricia Stallings.
In 1989, 24-year-old Patricia Stallings seemed to have a pretty good life. She’d met David Stallings around 1986 while working at a convenience store and married him in 1988. The couple settled in Hillsboro, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. On April 4, 1989, they welcome their first child, a son named Ryan. Unfortunately, their little family would soon be torn apart.
Ryan started having problems about two weeks after he was born. He had trouble keeping formula down, vomited a lot and suffered from what appeared to be abdominal pain. On July 7 (one source said July 17), Patricia found Ryan in his crib, “listless,” staring at the ceiling, his breathing heavy and his lips shut. He was almost comatose.
She set out to drive Ryan to the hospital. At first, she planned on going to St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She ended up getting lost, made a wrong turn and took him to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital instead.
At the hospital, Ryan was put on a respirator. Tests ordered by the hospital and performed by two independent labs found high levels of acetone and ethylene glycol in his body. I talked a little bit about acetone in my video on spontaneous human combustion, which you can watch here. Acetone is the main ingredient found in nail polish remover. According to Britannica, antifreeze is:
“Any substance that lowers the freezing point of water, protecting a system from the ill effects of ice formation. Antifreezes such as ethylene glycol or propylene glycol commonly added to water in automobile cooling systems prevent damage to radiators.”
Patricia had nail polish remover in the house, as many women do. David still had half a bottle of antifreeze left from rebuilding his car radiator. (*segment starts at 25:30) The initial thought was that Ryan somehow got into these things accidentally. But there was a cloud of suspicion over the Stallings.
Patricia and David were questioned about any potential problems in the home and weren’t allowed to be alone with Ryan. Staff also learned that Patricia had a 5-year-old son who she didn’t have custody of; he was being raised by his aunt after allegations of child abuse. Patricia said her son was malnourished and had frostbite because she didn’t have a lot of money at the time. Patricia also reportedly failed a polygraph at some point.
After 12 days in the hospital, Ryan’s condition had improved. But instead of being sent home, he was taken away from David and Patricia and put into foster care due to suspicions of poisoning. They were both given supervised visits with their son for an hour a week and weren’t allowed to bring him anything edible.
During their last visit, on August 31, Patricia was briefly left alone with Ryan. She later fed him a bottle during that visit, but with other people present.
On September 1 — the day after Patricia’s visit — Ryan started to get sick again. He was drowsy, vomiting and had convulsions. He was taken back to the hospital and Patricia was charged with assault and jailed.
One source said Ryan died on September 4. Another said he died on September 7. Regardless, after he died, Patricia was also charged with first degree murder. Police theorized she had started poisoning Ryan as early as July by lacing his bottles with antifreeze.
While in jail, Patricia felt like something was off. Everyone around her said it was just stress — after all, she was in a very stressful situation. But in October, she discovered what was really going on — she was pregnant again. On February 17, 1990, she gave birth to another son, David Jr., nicknamed DJ. DJ was put in foster care immediately after being born.
A few weeks later, on March 3, DJ got sick too. He was described as being “listless” by a social worker, similar to Ryan. He wouldn’t eat and had trouble going to the bathroom. He was also vomiting and “breathing funny.” DJ was taken to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where his brother Ryan was initially supposed to go months earlier. It was here that DJ was diagnosed with methylmalonic acidemia, or MMA.
MMA is a genetic disorder that makes it harder for your body to digest fat and proteins. It also causes your body to produce propylene glycol and acetone.
Remember, Ryan was found to have acetone and ethylene glycol in his system. According to Richard Loeppky, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Missouri at Columbia:
“There is a reasonable possibility that the two [ethylene glycol and propylene glycol] could be confused because the chemical properties of the two compounds are going to be very close to each other.”
According to medical geneticist Dr. Stephen Cederbaum, symptoms of poisoning and MMA are pretty similar and MMA is very rare. So it’s not hard to see how a doctor could confuse the two.
So what was going on here? Patricia had been temporarily released from jail after giving birth, but wasn’t allowed to see baby DJ — who was now suffering from similar symptoms as Ryan had months earlier. Was it possible that Ryan’s death was caused not by poisoning, but by MMA?
Once Patricia’s trial began the following year, her attorney, Eric Rathbone, asked the judge to present the theory that Ryan died from MMA. But the judge refused because there wasn’t any evidence of this.
Instead, jurors heard about the bottle from Patricia’s last visit with Ryan — the one that contained traces of ethylene glycol. They learned about the ethylene glycol found in Ryan’s brain, and the antifreeze found in the Stallings’ basement. They also heard testimony from police and social workers who claimed Patricia didn’t show much emotion when she learned about Ryan’s death. On January 31, 1991, Patricia Stallings was found guilty of assault and first degree murder. She was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
But there was still some doubt in this case. On May 8, 1991, Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on the case. I couldn’t find an original airing of the episode, but I did find a later repeat that was updated with the full story. You can watch it here. (segment starts at about 25:30)
After the episode aired, lots of doctors called into the show saying they knew about MMA. One person watching was William S. Sly, head of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at St. Louis University. Sly, along with physician and biochemist Dr. James Shoemaker, conducted more tests on Ryan’s blood. Shoemaker’s test found propionic acid, which is very similar to ethylene glycol — and common in MMA patients.
Sly sent the samples to several other labs that used the same procedure that was used as evidence to convict Patricia. A lot of them gave incorrect results. Sly also believed the supposed evidence of poisoning could have been caused by treatments Ryan was given when doctors assumed he’d already been poisoned.
George B. McElroy III, who had prosecuted Patricia’s case, soon found out about all this. He consulted with Dr. Piero Rinaldo, a biochemical geneticist at Yale University. Reinaldo took one look at the test results and called them “garbage.” He also said:
“Technically speaking, I’ve never seen such lousy work.”
“It was a classic case of misdiagnosis.”
Similar to William Sly, Rinaldo also believed the ethanol drip doctors used to treat Ryan might have actually contributed to his death. After these revelations, McElroy ordered a new trial.
Patricia Stallings was released from jail on July 30, 1991 and put on house arrest while waiting on a new trial. On September 20, all charges against her were dismissed and McElroy issued a personal apology to the family. The Stallings also regained custody of 18-month-old David, who did very well under their care with the proper treatment.
In July 1991, the Stallings filed a lawsuit against Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, its affiliates, some of the physicians there and one of the independent labs. The suit claimed the lab refused to perform additional testing that would have showed Ryan had MMA, and that Ryan’s death and Patricia’s wrongful conviction were a direct result of the misdiagnosis. It also claimed the family’s many medical bills, their losing custody of David and “damage to their reputation” were all results of this. The lawsuit was settled in 1993.
Also in 1993, a TV movie, Without a Kiss Goodbye, was released. The movie was based on the case; the names were changed, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it “eerily accurate.” In 1994, Patricia’s arrest records were partially expunged. Sadly, David “DJ” Stallings Jr. died on September 17, 2013 at the age of 23.
So that’s all I have for you today on Patricia Stallings. I’m not a parent, but I can’t imagine having to go through not only the death of your child, but being accused of their murder. I am really glad that this case was resolved in a relatively short amount of time, and that Patricia and David were able to spend a good amount of time with their surviving son.