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An unrelenting public defender has convinced a district attorney to drop charges of attempted murder, aggravated battery and aggravated assault in a three-year-old case against a woman accused of trying to slowly poison her husband with arsenic. The assistant public defender, Brett M. Willis in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, called it a “perfect textbook example of people being convinced there has been a crime committed when there has been no crime committed.” Northeastern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin approved a Dec. 20 nolle prosequi dismissing the case of State of Georgia v. Stephanie Bernice Stowers. The trial was scheduled to start in April. Court TV had announced plans to cover it. “No further prosecution is intended,” said Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, who signed the nolle prosequi along with Assistant District Attorney Alison W. Toller. Willis believed in his client’s innocence, but he faced formidable odds. Her husband, his sister, his daughter, his doctor, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the office of the district attorney all believed his client had poisoned her husband, Lula chicken farmer Louis “Stump” Stowers. Even the colleague who handed the case over to Willis early last summer seemed to have doubts. “He wasn’t excited about it because the evidence seemed so overwhelming,” Willis said. Then last summer, Willis received a surprise on his fax machine that turned around the case. In answer to a blanket subpoena to ensure he had all the evidence, he received a previously unseen second test result from a Pennsylvania lab that he said proved that Stowers had not been poisoned. The arsenic that turned up in his system when he became sick in October 2007 was nontoxic, organic and most likely present temporarily from eating seafood. He had no toxic, inorganic arsenic in his system. This was a more specific test ordered as a matter of routine by the California lab that had done the first general heavy metal test that showed arsenic. This test had been done two days after the first, but results had not been seen by defense or prosecuting attorneys. “We got it three years after the initial test,” Willis said. Willis said he and his co-counsel, assistant public defender Adam S. Levin, were “jumping out of the walls.” They had a document that they believed proved their client innocent and that showed no crime had been committed. They checked and double-checked the results for a couple of days, then took it to sheriff’s investigators and prosecutors. To their great frustration, the state was not convinced. Willis had seen published writing by a Harvard Medical School professor on the subject of organic arsenic being mistaken for the poisonous, toxic, inorganic variety and decided to hire him to review the case. Sure enough, Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, also division chief of occupational and environmental medicine for Cambridge Health Alliance, reported that the alleged crime did not happen, that is, that Stowers had not been poisoned. “The currently available evidence does NOT support the allegation that Mr. Stowers was arsenic poisoned,” the report states. “The most likely explanation of Mr. Stowers’ (initial) results would be benign (non-toxic) organoarsenates, which occur naturally in seafood.” That five-page report cost the public defender’s office $7,000. The $7,000 was a lot for his office to spend for an expert witness, but “we had to do it,” Willis said. “The defendant was charged with the above referenced offenses after a lengthy investigation and discussion with numerous witnesses that pointed to a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence indicating that the defendant was attempting to kill her husband. This circumstantial evidence, coupled with the laboratory results and medical symptoms indicating acute arsenic poisoning, led the state to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had intentionally poisoned the victim with arsenic,” the document states. Then comes a weighty “however” that turns the case in the opposite direction. “However, after reviewing the defense’s expert’s written report and conferring with Dr. Gaylord Lopez of the Georgia Poison Center, the state believes that we are unable to prove that the defendant poisoned the victim as alleged in the indictment. Although experts have concurred that the victim did exhibit ‘textbook’ symptoms of arsenic poisoning, further testing not initially provided to the state has revealed that the victim tested positive for organic arsenic (non-toxic) rather than inorganic arsenic (toxic).” Darragh would not say if he still suspects foul play. “The nolle prosequi document speaks for itself,” he said. “What we believe is that we cannot prove the charges in the indictment.” He repeated the apparent contradiction in the case. “The charges were appropriate in the first place at the time of the indictment and through the entire investigation. However, when further scientific evidence was revealed that created a reasonable doubt as to the evidence, it was appropriate to enter a nolle prosequi,” Darragh said. “We prosecuted the case based on scientific evidence and we nolle prossed the case based on the scientific evidence.” The belief that Stephanie Stowers, now 47, was poisoning her husband began in October 2007 when he got sick and she took him to a hospital, according to Willis. Stowers was admitted to Northeast Georgia Medical Center for numbness in his hands and feet. Doctors had difficulty diagnosing his symptoms and ordered multiple tests. They concluded he might have Guillain-Barre syndrome, which could exhibit as an aftereffect of having recently fought off a virus. He was discharged and went home with his wife. Then, two days later, Stowers began having pain in his chest. His wife helped him to the car and began driving to the hospital. On the way, she pressed the car’s OnStar button and was directed to the nearest fire station by a 911 emergency operator. Rescue workers at the fire station transported them again to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. More questions arose about the cause of his symptoms. Stephanie Stowers asked to see the doctor who had diagnosed her husband with Guillain-Barre syndrome. In the process of gathering the files, the doctor found the report from the heavy metal screening test taken from the first visit. It showed a highly elevated level of arsenic. The doctor went over the results with the couple, saying he did not know why the arsenic level was high. “Maybe you’re being exposed to it from your well water,” the doctor said. “Or maybe your wife is poisoning you.” As the story was told to Willis, they all chuckled at the poisoning reference. But soon enough, it was not a joke. The husband began thinking. So did his daughter and sister, who never trusted this new wife—his third—whom he had moved to their family farm only the year before, Willis said. The other women in the family said, “She was nice, but she was almost too nice.” They called police. Other suspicions reported by the husband: She cooked and served his meals and brought him coffee when he woke up. One day the coffee tasted bitter as he finished the cup, the husband eventually told the police. She said it was a nondairy creamer and gave him a fresh cup. When police went to search the home, they found no evidence of arsenic, Willis said. But they reported, as though it was suspicious, that “the house appeared to have been recently cleaned.” Later, they went back for another search. This time they looked inside the chimney and found a charred piece of paper they said contained information about how to poison someone with arsenic. Willis said the mention of this charred piece of paper stuck in the chimney was used against his client with the grand jury. Three years later, when Willis went to the police station and viewed the evidence, he said it mentioned nothing about arsenic. It was a scrap of an article about carbon monoxide. While investigating the case, the public defender’s office learned that Stowers fed his chickens with Roxarsone, which contains organic arsenic, Willis said. The litter left behind by the chickens also contains arsenic from the feed, Willis said, and Stowers cleaned that up and spread it around his fields. The public defender’s office sampled the litter from the field and found arsenic. Stowers also told Stephen Gurr, senior investigator of the office of the public defender, that he didn’t remember what he ate before he went to the hospital, but his favorite restaurant was Red Lobster. That seemed important in showing that the arsenic could be from eating seafood, Willis said. Then Willis received a cease and desist order from the district attorney banning his office from further communication with Stowers. Willis said he was unable to contact Stowers even after the charges were dropped. The district attorney said his office had notified Stowers of the dismissal of the case. Stowers did not return a phone call for comment. Stowers, now 52, has recovered. As for his client, Willis said, she was overwhelmed with tears of relief. Even she had become convinced that her husband was being poisoned. She just didn’t know how or by whom, Willis said. His client now goes by her maiden name, Stephanie Brooks, and lives in Tennessee. Stowers divorced her soon after the arsenic test came in. She moved to Tennessee and went to work for a hotel. She was on the job when police came to arrest her, and after she bonded out she was fired. “I really believe she was completely in love with this guy and wanted to do everything to make the marriage work,” said Willis. “She lost her marriage. She lost her job. She lost every single friend she ever had—including her friends from church.” Willis said no one can imagine what his client has been through. But he did give some insight into what he has been through as her attorney. “In criminal defense, your worst nightmare is encountering an innocent client,” Willis said. “They’re the ones that make you turn gray and keep you up at night. They’re the ones that wear on your mind.”

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