At the hospital, Joniah still couldn’t breathe on his own. He showed no signs of brain activity. Working around the tubes and machines, Dr. Matthew Cox, the hospital’s head child abuse pediatrician, took stock of the baby’s injuries. He saw multiple pink gashes across the baby’s legs and stomach and noticed many were paired up and perfectly linear. What doctors thought were scratches were actually burns, Cox believed.
He reviewed Joniah’s CT scans, noting that the most recent brain injury was so catastrophic that the child had probably lost consciousness immediately. Some kids did get seriously injured falling off beds, but that was rare, and they showed up in emergency rooms with a single wound. This baby had two massive brain bleeds, more consistent with a high-speed car crash or punches to the head. Cox felt certain that Joniah had been chronically abused. And with all those bite and burn marks, he had suffered.
These cases still got to Cox. In his first few years on the job, he ate a lot of cake. Then he started running, first 5Ks, then marathons. He also began making stained-glass art. He found it therapeutic to smash sheets of glass into imperfect shards then reassemble them into something beautiful.
Cox called Nichols to tell her about the burns. She and the detectives headed back to the family’s house on Maryland Avenue to find what had caused them. In the back bedroom, Vann’s eyes fell on the space heater beside the queen mattress. An evidence tech loaded it up for testing at the crime lab. Then the detectives headed back to the police station to meet the baby’s mother for an interview. They still had suspicions about Tamika Sanford.
Sanford, 23, walked into the interrogation room, her eyes full of tears. Detective Slade took a seat and read her the Miranda warning. He asked about Baker.
She told him they’d met in 2009, and she’d gotten pregnant after dating for a couple months. They argued sometimes, but Baker had never been violent with her, Sanford said. He kept the baby all day while she worked, then he went out to shoot pool or play darts with friends for most of the night. She knew he smoked marijuana but had never seen him do any other drugs. She knew he had served two and a half years in prison for trafficking drugs before they met. But she had not known about his other convictions—for assault and escape—until the past day or two, when she looked up his record for the first time.
She had noticed scratches on Joniah over the past few months, but Baker always had an explanation. Sometimes her mother questioned the baby’s injuries, Sanford said, worried about what was happening while her daughter was at work. But Sanford dismissed her concerns.
“I wasn’t thinking that he would do anything to my son,” Sanford said.
“What are you thinking now?” Slade asked.
She paused, looked down. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t know,” she said softly.
Slade pressed. “Knowing what you know right now, what is your opinion of Jonathan?”
“I can’t talk to him,” she said. “I’m angry. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Does it surprise you?” Slade asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Because how do you burn a baby? How do you burn your own baby?”
As the interview continued, Slade pressed Sanford further. “Everyone is looking at you, wondering if you’re a part of this. There’s a big concern whether you knew what was going on.”
Sanford looked him in the eye. “My child lying in a hospital bed, brain dead is not acceptable to me. I’m suffering. My child is my world. No, sir, this is not acceptable to me.”
Slade leaned back in his chair. He believed her. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘Love is blind’? ”
Sanford nodded slowly. “Yes,” she said. “My mother tells me that all the time.”
By that afternoon, it had become clear that Joniah would not recover. Caseworkers allowed his mother to visit one last time. She told Joniah she loved him and said goodbye. Doctors declared Joniah Baker dead at 1:27 pm on December 9, about 48 hours after he’d arrived at the hospital.
His body was transferred to the Dallas County Institute of Forensic Sciences for an autopsy, his case assigned to Dr. Stephanie Burton, who was in her first month as a fully licensed medical examiner. Burton quickly saw that his injuries were more extensive than anyone had realized. She counted 26 burns—on his back, his stomach, his thighs, his calves, even a pair on the back of his head that had been hidden by hair. Many of the burns appeared in pairs.
She measured the distance between the marks: 1 and ¾ inches. At the crime lab, Detective Slade measured the distance between the space heater flanges: 1 and ¾ inches.
When tests came back, the flanges showed traces of DNA from both father and son.
Burton finished her autopsy report. Under Manner of death, she typed Homicide. Detectives upgraded Baker’s charge to capital murder.