Imagine being put in prison for murdering your own child, knowing you were innocent? That was the life Patti Stallings lived for months, before giving birth and being proven innocent.
The story is wild from start to finish, so let's just dive into it.
Patti and David Stallings
In 1986, Patti met her future husband, David, while she was working at 7/11. David was a plate engraver, and the two instantly fell in love. Two years later, they were married. One year after that, their son Ryan was born in 1989.
Ryan Stallings was never quite right. His parents noticed he couldn't hold down his formula, and would vomit once per week.
“We kind of got used to it,” Patti remembers. “He looked so normal.”
When he was just three months old, Ryan fell critically ill. He was found by his mother, lying face-up in his crib and breathing heavily. Immediately, Patti and David brought baby Ryan to the hospital, where he was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
"It was just a shock to see a little baby incapacitated the way he was," said the new mom. "It was to the point where they said, well, they don’t know how long he’s going to be here. 'We don’t know what’s wrong with him yet. So you may as well just go to the waiting room and stay out there until we can tell you what’s wrong.'”
But the longer they waited, the more panicked the parents were. Then the police showed up.
Ryan was placed on a respirator, and police were called to investigate after doctors found ethylene glycol—an active ingredient in antifreeze—in his blood. Both Patti and David Stallings were suspects.
“We were split up and talked to by detectives," Patti said. "They immediately started asking me, ‘Is there a problem at home? Are you and David fighting?’ They were saying that they knew that that baby had been poisoned by either me or my husband. It infuriated me, and I was just… I was devastated. I was blown away… Ryan was my world… He was perfect.”
The baby was taken from his parents and placed in foster care once he began to improve, with Patti and David only being allowed to see him for one hour per week under supervision. They were not allowed to give him anything edible. Patti was briefly left alone with Ryan and a bottle of formula prepared by his foster mother. She fed her son with others present. Four days later, Ryan was admitted in critical condition.
Patti was arrested and charged with assault.
“He was lying there with tubes in his arms and his throat, blowing up like a balloon,” says David. “I couldn’t stand it.”
Ryan died on September 7, 1989. He was not even six months old.
"The doctors come up and tell me that they have a feeling that Ryan’s not going to make it and that maybe I should contact a minister and have him baptized," David recalled. "I tried to get Patti up there and all I got from the judge was, ‘No, absolutely not. I’m not going to let a baby-killer up there.’ I said, ‘This lady did not kill this baby.’ When they finally came back to me and told me that ‘We need to know if we can turn him off,’ I told them, ‘Go ahead and shut the machine down.’ But I wanted to be in there with him. So for three hours, I sat there with him in my arms, knowing that Patti couldn’t be there, watching this meter on this machine go down each time his heart would beat.”
Patti was not allowed to attend Ryan's funeral, and was charged with first-degree murder. She was held without bail.
Then, something happened that would change the case forever.
David Stallings Jr.
Weeks after Patti was charged with her son's murder, she found out she was pregnant again. David Stallings Jr. (D.J.) was born six months later, while Patti was still in prison. David Sr. was not considered a suspect, but their new baby was still taken and put into foster care. At just two weeks old, D.J. began exhibiting the same symptoms as his late brother.
“The social worker told me he was listless, vomiting and breathing funny,” Patti says. “I went into shock. Those were the same things wrong with Ryan.”
One month later, D.J. was diagnosed with methylmalonic acidemia (MMA), a rare genetic disorder in which the body does not break down proteins properly.
The Stallings and their attorney believed this is the same thing Ryan was suffering from, and tried to argue their case during Patti's trial. Unfortunately, Eric Rathborne, the Stallings' attorney, never secured medical witnesses to prove this theory. Because of this lack of evidence, the diagnosis of D.J. was not allowed to be presented to the jury.
The prosecutor went after Patti hard, with both police and social workers claiming she showed no emotion after her son died.
Investigators also presented a bottle of anti-freeze found at the family home to the court, claiming it was the only explanation for the ethylene glycol found in Ryan's body.
After a 10 hour deliberation, a jury found Patti guilty of first-degree murder.
"I cannot see how they can live with themselves, knowing that they sent an innocent woman to jail for the rest of her life for something that she didn’t do," David said. "If Ryan would have been correctly diagnosed with MMA, none of this would have happened. None of these series of events in the last two years would have happened. It all depended on whether he was correctly diagnosed, which he was not.”
So how did Patti get vindicated?
After her case started circulating through the news, Patti received a break she never could have imagined. William Sly, the chairman of the biochemistry department at St. Louis University, believed Ryan did in fact die of MMA. He contacted James Shoemaker, director of the university’s metabolic-screening laboratory, who tested frozen samples of Ryan's blood serum. Shoemaker's evidence found Ryan was suffering from MMA, which caused his death.
The information was brought to the prosecution, who weren't convinced. They sought out Dr. Piero Rinaldo, assistant professor of genetics at Yale, who studied the case for six weeks before presenting his findings: Ryan did die of MMA, and Patti was innocent of murdering her son. He even commented on how awful the evidence presented to the jury was.
“Technically speaking, I’ve never seen such lousy work,” Dr. Rinaldo says. “It was a classic case of misdiagnosis.”
Upon seeing the staggering evidence from the experts they consulted, the prosecution made a rare and stunning legal move: they asked for Patti's murder charges to be dismissed. 14 months after being locked up for her son's murder, Patti Stallings was released.
“We can’t undo the suffering the Stallingses have endured during this ordeal, and I apologize,” George McElroy, head of the prosecution. said. “I hope their lives will be happier and fuller in the future.”
After Her Release
Patti and David got custody of D.J. back, and by 1991 they were a family again. Feeding is hard, and D.J. will be living with MMA his entire life. But Patti isn't complaining.
“I want to move on, so I try to act like nothing ever happened,” she says. "We’re moving cautiously forward. We don’t want to make plans. Life is too short.”