A judge Friday found enough evidence to order a Bakersfield couple to stand trial on child abuse charges that led to the death of their toddler in 2018 during a preliminary hearing in Kern County Superior Court.
Tashe Gregory, 22, and Billy Ray Webb, 31, each face one felony count of willful cruelty to a child following the death of their daughter A-Mylah Whitfield on Aug. 25, 2018. They face more than a decade in prison if convicted.
A-Mylah was 19-months-old when Gregory and Webb took her to the hospital after they noticed shallow breathing and her arm twitching. She died hours later. A pathologist determined she suffered a fractured spinal rib and a perforated bowel, and her death was ruled a homicide by the Kern County coroner's office.
Webb and Gregory were arrested in November 2019, more than a year after A-Mylah's death because prosecutors requested further investigation before filing charges. Webb and Gregory have been held in jail since their arrest on $1 million bail.
Prosecutor Garret Rice argued in court Friday that the baby, which was born prematurely and had established medical issues, suffered an injury in the week prior to her death and her parents never sought adequate medical attention until it was too late, despite knowing she was sick. He called to the stand Bakersfield Police Sgt. Eric Littlefield who said Gregory told police in a follow-up interview that she saw Webb make a striking motion at the child in the days leading up to her death. Littlefield said Gregory also contacted the coroner's officer after the death and specifically requested not to have an autopsy done.
"Someone hit this baby so hard or did something to it to break its soft, malleable ribs," Rice said. "Someone knows something."
During a preliminary hearing, the prosecution must only show there is some credible evidence to suggest a crime was committed.
Defense attorneys Elliott Magnus and Henry Gereis said the case seemed like an attempt to pin the blame on someone for what was really the tragic death of an already fragile child. Magnus suggested the rib injury possibly resulted from CPR performed on the child three times after she arrived at the hospital.
The parents believed the girl's fever and refusal to eat were related to teething, Magnus said, and when her condition deteriorated further, they took her to the hospital. He pointed out that Littlefield testified that A-Mylah had bruising from CPR but not other bruising, swelling or marks consistent with being struck so hard that her rib was broken.
"This is a very tragic case but … they can’t just look at Mr. Webb and say he was there, he was close, he’s responsible for this."
Gereis attributed Gregory's request to not have an autopsy done to being in denial over her daughter's death.
Family members who attended the hearing suggested afterward that Gregory was pressured by police to say that Webb struck the child under threat of having her other children taken away.
"Billy is a good person," Billy Webb's stepmother, Amy Webb, said afterward, wiping tears from her eyes. She said Billy Webb has taken care of kids since he was 18, including a son from a previous relationship whom he was awarded custody of, along with his siblings and the children of other family members.
"He walks them to school. He's not giving them corndogs for dinner. He cooks a full meal for them," Amy Webb said.
In ordering the couple to stand trial, Judge Brian McNamara specifically noted the number of people interviewed by police who noticed how sick the child looked, including Webb's son who was 9 years old at the time and Gregory's brother who was 13. He also noted Gregory's phone call to request an autopsy not be done.
"That speaks volumes to the court," the judge said.