On the day 3-year-old Melvin Stone died, seven of his teachers from College Park’s Elite School were at the hospital offering prayers for the child and support for his mother, who police say had left him in her hot car for more than three hours.
Lillian Stone, the teachers said, was among the most devoted parents they ever encountered at the daycare. Melvin was always well-dressed, well-behaved and obviously loved, they agreed.
“If he was crying when she dropped him off she wouldn’t leave until he stopped,” teacher Jamilah Jones said. “She’d give him a million kisses. I know for a fact (his death) was an accident. She would never do that. No way.”
Fulton County police say otherwise. When Melvin was pronounced dead on Saturday, investigators immediately tacked a murder charge onto a previous charge of cruelty to children in the first degree against his mother. The latter charge indicates the crime was intentional, calling to mind the 2014 death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris. Cooper’s father, Justin Ross Harris, was convicted last November of intentionally murdering his only child and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
But Harris was an outlier. In Georgia, a charge of second-degree murder — indicating negligence but not malice — was introduced in 2014 to specifically address hot-car deaths. And that’s typically how these incidents — including the 25-year-old mother accused of leaving her baby daughter in a car this summer while getting her hair braided and the Carrollton father who, one year earlier, allegedly got drunk, forgetting his 15-month-old twin daughters were still in their car seats — have been prosecuted.
Melvin was left in his car seat between noon and 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 31 while Stone, 25, was presumably inside the family’s South Fulton home in the 6800 block of Smoke Ridge Drive. A concerned neighbor spotted the child and called 911. Stone told police she had been running errands that day and forgot Melvin was still in her car.
Although the high temperature that day was only in the upper 60s, that’s still hot enough to lead to a child’s death. A recent study by Consumer Reports showed that on a day when the mercury topped out at 61, the temperature inside a car could soar more than 40 degrees in less than an hour.
Melvin Stone was the 43rd child in the U.S., and the fourth in Georgia, to die this year due to heatstroke from being left inside a vehicle, according to the advocacy group KidsAndCars.org.
Police say they have evidence disproving Stone’s account but have yet to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation. It’s possible those alleged contradictions were spotted on surveillance footage captured by a neighbor’s security camera and seized by investigators.
Rev. Kennard Armstrong said his camera covers “the entire block.”
“If something happened around that car the camera would capture it,” Armstrong said.
Still, those who know Stone say she is incapable of such a heinous crime. A petition on change.org demanding her release from jail, where she’s being held without bond, has attracted nearly 2,000 signatures. Stone also has a 5-year-old son.
Erica King said her cousin never even raised her voice to her sons, let alone her hand in anger.
“This is a mother who cooks healthy meals for her boys every day, always makes sure they are on time for dentist and doctor’s appointments, always spotless,” King said.
Glendora Jones, Melvin’s former teacher at the Elite School, said Stone often went the extra mile for her kids.
“That boy loved that girl and she loved him back,” Glendora Jones said. “When we had our Christmas party she’d bring extra stuff for the other kids and the teachers. And always had a smile on her face.”
Neighbor Theresa Armstrong said Stone was “very family-oriented.”
“When one of them had a birthday you’d see one of those bouncy houses in the yard,” she said. “It just seemed like a very loving home.”
But those who knew Ross Harris were equally incredulous after his arrest, calling him a doting father who loved spending time with his son. A petition on change.org asking Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds to drop murder charges against Harris drew more than 11,000 signatures. That petition was eventually withdrawn, however, after prosecutors revealed a host of salacious allegations against the former Home Depot web developer, some of which eventually proved to be misleading.
“There are people who are quite good at hiding some of their personality,” said Dunwoody defense attorney Esther Panitch, who followed the Harris trial closely. “We don’t know if that’s the case here, but there’s a lot about this investigation we still don’t know.”