Asserting innocence, Tom Imschweiler seeks prison release 

By on January 26, 2024

OBX visitor accepted plea deal in the 2018 death of his infant son

(iStock)

In November 2021, Tom Imschweiler began a five-year prison sentence after agreeing to a plea deal in connection with the July 22, 2018 death of his four-month-old son Franklin while the Pennsylvania family was on vacation in Corolla.

Imschweiler, who was the last person with the infant, has claimed that he found the baby unconscious after the infant had turned himself face first in the couch pillow while he was in the kitchen preparing a bottle. But he soon found himself faced with a murder charge as the Currituck County Sheriff’s Department and the Norfolk Medical Examiner attributed the infant’s death to Shaken Baby Syndrome.

The Currituck County Sheriff’s Department issued a warrant for Imschweiler’s arrest on July 25 on a felony child abuse charge and he was arrested in Pennsylvania and brought back to North Carolina. On Sept. 17, while he was in custody on $2.7 million bail, the charge was upgraded to first-degree murder. When Imschweiler was first incarcerated, 15 families put their homes up for collateral, according to his wife Laura.

Faced with the prospect of life without parole if a jury decided he was guilty, Imschweiler pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, using an Alford Plea, in which the defendant accepts a plea agreement while not admitting guilt. The prosecutor at that point was District Attorney Andrew Womble.

Now, after serving two years behind bars in the Sanford Correctional Center in NC, Imschweiler and his supporters, who maintain his innocence and believe Franklin’s death was caused by suffocation, are organizing a campaign to have his sentence commuted or to have him pardoned. With a website dedicated to the cause and a change.org petition with more than 34,000 signatures, the story is also attracting some media attention.

In an interview with the Voice, Imschweiler said that even though his attorney was confident he could win at trial, he felt compelled to accept the plea deal. “Even if there was a ten percent chance of losing, I wasn’t willing to risk that to not be with my daughter and my wife and my family and all that,” he said. “It just…it was too much. Too much going against me on that end. And I couldn’t do it.”

For his part, First Prosecutorial District DA Jeff Cruden told the Voice in an email that he would not re-open the case, stating that “the State was prepared to try the defendant for the initial charges when the attorneys for the defendant requested that we allow him to plead to Voluntary Manslaughter.”  Imschweiler’s attorney, Richard Lomurro, says the parties were in ongoing talks when then District Attorney Andrew Womble suddenly said he would be open to a plea deal if they put something on the table.

********

Franklin’s fatal injuries occurred on the night of July 17, 2018, when Tom was on vacation in Corolla with his then-girlfriend Laura, their son Franklin and Laura’s extended family. According to Imschweiler, when Franklin began crying in the middle of the night, he carried him to the living room and bounced him on his knee as he usually did. As Franklin began to fall asleep, he placed him upright on the couch, a precaution he and Laura had been using all week due to a viral infection that had been causing Franklin to vomit.

But Imschweiler says that when he returned from preparing bottles, he found Franklin face down in the couch pillow and unresponsive. Despite CPR efforts by the family, and emergency responders, Franklin tragically succumbed to his injuries five days later at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.

Imschweiler faced charges based on injuries characterized on the autopsy report by the Medical Examiner in Norfolk by brain swelling and retinal and subdural hemorrhaging—the “triad” associated with Shaken Baby Syndrome.

Dr. Mary Gilliland, who was medical examiner in Northeastern NC, including Currituck County for 30 years up until her retirement in 2019, concluded that accidental suffocation was the actual reason for the death, and can lead to the same three symptoms found in the autopsy report.

According to a written report and video testimony provided to the District Attorney’s office, Gilliland contested the initial autopsy findings, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive assessment of all available information, including scene circumstances, caregiver statements, medical records, and follow up scene investigations. Gilliland, whose research was responsible for reversing a Shaken Baby Syndrome charge in 2008, highlighted the neglect of scene evidence, eyewitness accounts, and EMS records that supported the suffocation event.

In a story written in October 2023, WTKR News 3, a reporting partner of the Outer Banks Voice, sent all the documentation available in the case to Dr. William McClain, a forensic pathologist not connected to the case, for his opinion.

“The truth of the matter is, in this case, I would not be able to say either one of those,” McClain told WTKR. “I am not convinced that this is a homicide and I’m not convinced that it is not a homicide,” he told WTKR, adding that it’s a very complicated case.

“If this was my case and I had to sign Franklin’s death certificate,” McClain added. “I’d probably called this an undetermined cause of death and undetermined manner of death and I would have lost a lot of sleep about it.”

*********

In his email to the Voice, District Attorney Cruden cited the circumstances surrounding the plea agreement.

“First of all, the defendant was sentenced to Voluntary Manslaughter after he PLED GUILTY on December 3, 2021,” Cruden stated in the email, adding that the case was set for trial until the plea deal. “He was initially charged with 1st degree murder and felony child abuse by intentionally inflicting serious bodily injury. The State was prepared to try the defendant for the initial charges when the attorneys for the defendant requested that we allow him to plead to Voluntary Manslaughter. Mr. Womble, the District Attorney at the time, consented to the proposed plea offer tendered by his attorneys. He was represented by three very capable and experienced attorneys.”

In speaking to the Voice, Imschweiler says that he felt he had no choice but to take the plea deal or risk spending the rest of his life in prison, especially since Laura was seven months pregnant with their daughter.

“I mean, basically, the way I looked at it was I was stuck in between a rock and a hard place,” Imschweiler told the Voice in a call from Sanford Correctional Center, explaining that initially, his team was planning to take the case to trial because he and his lawyer were confident the evidence would prove he was innocent. But when the plea deal surfaced, he and his family met with his defense team at his lawyer’s office to go over what would be used against him.

“And then he said, ‘Tom, I’m confident that we could win this 10 times.’ But if we lose this, you know, I could be doing life. And basically, I wasn’t willing to risk never seeing my daughter.”

In his response to the Voice, Cruden pointed to evidence of a previous broken rib in the baby in the autopsy report. According to records in the case, Franklin’s grandmother believes that injury happened when she was driving Franklin in her car a couple months previously and didn’t have him strapped in properly. When she braked, Franklin fell out of his seat and hit the dashboard. According to Laura, she and Tom were never informed of this incident until the grandmother came forward when this evidence was presented.

Additionally, Cruden pointed to a letter sent during Imschweiler’s initial months in prison after being charged. In the letter he wrote to his family, Imschweiler expressed the sentiment that “the devil had gotten into him.”

Attorney Lomurro told the Voice that Imschweiler wrote that because he was told repeatedly by a Currituck detective that he had caused his son’s death.

“Tom, while in jail, was depressed and grief ridden. He accepted what they told him and believed somehow, he could have been too rough, although he never knew how,” Lomurro told the Voice. Imschweiler “wrote letters to his family expressing his sorrow and absolute despair believing that he somehow was responsible… because that is all he was told.”

Lomurro also told that the family will seek a commutation of sentence or pardon from Governor Roy Cooper. In an email to the Voice, Jordan Monaghan, Deputy Communications Director for Governor Cooper wrote, ““The Office of the Governor, including the offices of Executive Clemency and General Counsel, carefully reviews all petitions for clemency actions.”



Comments are closed.