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Georgia mother's conviction partially reversed for murder of 2-week-old baby

Christopher McNabb and Cortney Bell were found guilty in 2019 of murdering their 2-week-old daughter, Caliyah. Bell's murder conviction has now been reversed.

COVINGTON, Ga. — A state appeals court has reversed a murder conviction of a Georgia mother charged in the death of her newborn child.

In 2019, Cortney Bell was found guilty by a jury in Newton County of several charges, including second-degree murder, in the death of her 2-week-old daughter, Caliyah.

The baby died in 2017. Bell along with her boyfriend, Christopher McNabb, were then found guilty of murdering her. A jury deliberated for only about an hour after closing arguments in the case.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's medical examiner revealed Caliyah had died from blunt force trauma to the head and the manner of death was ruled a homicide.

RELATED: Chris McNabb and Cortney Bell found guilty of murdering 2-week-old daughter

However on Friday, the Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed the murder and a second-degree child cruelty conviction against Bell when it issued an opinion detailing how "the evidence was insufficient."

The appeals court affirmed a felony conviction against Bell, though, for the charge of contributing to the dependency of a minor, meaning the court found there was sufficient evidence to show either neglect or abuse.

District Attorney Randy McGinley of the Alcovy Judicial Circuit, which covers Newton County, said his office has 10 days from when the opinion was published on Feb. 18 to appeal the ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court. 

Yet as of Tuesday, McGinley said his office is still reviewing the opinion and hadn't determined if an appeal will be filed. 

He explained he's weighing the comments the appeals court made in its opinion about the evidence presented at trial, plus the history of second-degree murder convictions in Georgia. 

"We went to trial on those charges because we believe there was sufficient evidence to prove those charges. I obviously respect the court of appeals and their decision," McGinley said during an interview with 11Alive. "Second-degree murder has only been around since 2014, so there isn't a ton of case law about that. That is one of the considerations I have to take into account as well." 

Caliyah was born prematurely on Sept. 23, 2017 and only weighed five pounds at birth.

On Saturday morning, Oct. 7, 2017, at 10:38 a.m., Cortney Bell frantically called Newton County 911 to report that her 2-week-old daughter had gone missing. 

One day later, on Sunday, Oct. 8, searchers made a heartbreaking find -- the girl's body was located, wrapped in a blue cloth and placed underneath a log in a wooded area located about a quarter-mile away from the trailer park where McNabb and Bell lived, according to Newton County Sheriff's Capt. Keith Crum.  

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, McNabb was charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, and concealing a death.

According to his arrest warrants, McNabb, "did strike the victim…with an unknown object. This action did cause the victim's skull to be seriously disfigured and damaged beyond repair."

The warrant also said McNabb wrapped his daughter's body in a t-shirt and blanket before putting her in a drawstring bag and hiding her in the woods.

Months later, on Jan. 1, 2018, Bell was arrested and charged in the case.

When she was sentenced, she acknowledged her use of meth was a 'sickness,' and stated, "I tried to be a good mama. I love my babies."

However, her statement was countered by Judge John Ott who said, "you chose methamphetamine and McNabb over a baby."

In its recently released opinion, the appeals court wrote, "Bell argues that the evidence was insufficient to establish that she 'caused the massive trauma to [the victim's] head,' either directly or as a party to the crime. We agree." 

However, McGinley explained "the argument from the state wasn't that Ms. Bell caused injuries herself, but just that her negligence and neglect is what led to those injuries." 

He continued by noting that theory was what they went forward with on trial and what the jury convicted the couple on. 

"In the court of appeals, the argument is that there needs to be something more than just negligence," McGinley added, noting that's "kind of the way I read their opinion the first two times I've read it through. That isn't enough to show being party to a crime." 

Following her conviction in 2019, Bell was sentenced to 30 years for the murder and child cruelty conviction, with 15 years of her sentence to be served in prison and the remainder on probation.

For the contributing to the dependency of a minor conviction, the judge sentenced her to an additional 10 years in prison, to run concurrently with the sentence for second-degree murder. 

However, Bell's sentence could change drastically if McGinley doesn't file an appeal, or if an appeal is unsuccessful. 

"If it just stands as is, she would be brought before the trial court again and be resentenced just as to count three," McGinley said. "She would be legally entitled to the credit for the time she has been in for those charges. As far as how much time she serves, that will ultimately be up to [State Board of] Pardons and Parole. That isn't up to the district attorney's office or the trial court."

While Bell was found guilty of three charges, with second-degree murder being the most serious, McNabb was found guilty of eight charges including malice murder. 

McNabb was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 10 years. He has filed an appeal in his case with the Supreme Court of Georgia.

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