This past week, a baby murdered in January of 2018 finally received some measure of justice. I covered this case in this week’s Patreon-exclusive bonus minisode.
First, a recap:
In 2016, a young North Carolina couple — 23-year-old Abigail Neiger-Bickham and 23-year-old Zachary Littell — tragically lost their 8-month-old daughter, Ava Marie Littell.
Ava’s maternal grandmother, Jennifer Neiger, told reporters the baby died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). When an autopsy was performed on Ava, the medical examiner noted that some recent lethargy was reported in the history. A diagram included in the report described a “purple-red” bruise on the back of the baby’s head. The report also made note of scalp contusions, describing them as “of varying ages but one was acute, occurring during the period of time when the infant was said to be less active. The contusions were large and posterior, not in an area likely to be associated with activities of an 8-month old infant. No explanation for the injuries was offered other than head-banging while learning to crawl and her activity was also described as ‘scooting’ rather than hand-and-knees crawling.”
Despite these suspicious findings, Ava’s cause of death was deemed undetermined, and no charges were pressed.
Ava’s untimely death seemed much more suspicious, however, after Harper Renee Littell, the second infant daughter of the same couple, died 17 months later. This time, the autopsy revealed a clear cause of death, and, according to police, there was one person responsible: Harper’s father, Zachary.
On January 3, 2018, police and emergency medical personnel responded to the Jacksonville, North Carolina home of Zachary (then 25 years old) and Abigail (then age 24) at 104 Denise Drive, from which they had received a report of an infant not breathing. EMS arrived first and was treating the child by the time deputies arrived on the scene. Harper, who was born on November 15, 2017, was transported to Onslow Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, but from there, she was transferred almost immediately to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville. Medical personnel took note of swollen areas on both sides of Harper’s head and bruises around her lips and on the back of her head. On January 5, she was removed from life support, and she lost her life at only seven weeks old.
According to police, Zachary told them that when he left Harper unattended, she fell out of a portable baby bathtub. However, the medical examiner thought Harper’s injuries told a very different story.
Harper’s autopsy was performed by Pitt County Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Gilliland, the same pathologist who performed Ava’s autopsy in 2016. The autopsy report showed bleeding in the space between Harper’s brain and meninges (the connective tissue covering the brain), as well as skull fractures and brain edema (swelling).
Infants have been observed, according to the autopsy, to fall from changing tables and other surfaces up to 36 inches from the floor without suffering such severe injuries. Dr. Gilliland’s report read, “Based on scene circumstances and autopsy findings, it is my opinion that the cause of death in this case is blunt force injuries of the head.” Harper’s manner of death was ruled a homicide.
On Wednesday, January 24, 2018, Zachary was arrested by the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit and charged with one open count of murder in the death of his second daughter, Harper Renee Littell. He was booked into Onslow County Sheriff’s Detention Center, where he remained in custody until just last week.
Now, the update:
At a court hearing at 2:00 PM on Tuesday, September 21, 2021, Zachary Littell accepted a plea deal that allowed him to enter an Alford plea to the charge of second-degree murder in exchange for 18 to 22 years in prison.
For those unfamiliar, an Alford plea is technically a guilty plea in which the defendant maintains his innocence, does not admit to the crime, but admits that the evidence presented by the prosecution would likely convince a judge or jury of his guilt. Two very famous examples of cases resolved by the Alford plea are the West Memphis Three case, immortalized by HBO’s Paradise Lost documentary series, and that of Michael Peterson, the subject of The Staircase documentary series.
While I was initially horrified that this option was presented to Zachary Littell, according to prosecutors, the offer was in line with the family’s wishes.
Onslow County Assistant District Attorney Caroline Wahoff, who serves as the county’s Child Abuse and Sex Crimes Prosecutor, told reporters, “After going over all the options as far as whether to take this to trial or whether to take a plea based on the circumstances… the family felt like this was what was best for them… while that doesn’t always guide our decision, where it ultimately it’s our discretion — we have to make the decision; based on the facts of this case, we felt like it was something where we could get a good plea out of this, but also respect the family’s wishes.
“We have families that are understandably, their first emotion might be anger… us as prosecutors, we play such a small role in these families’ grieving processes and their healing process, because no matter what we get in there, if we get life without parole or if we get 18 years, as we did in this case, we can’t bring Harper back.”
Onslow County District Attorney Ernie Lee told reporters that he felt the family was satisfied with the plea agreement. “It is a tragedy. All we can do on our end is make sure that some sense of justice is done with a guilty plea such as this.”
Several family members attended the plea hearing, including Harper and Ava’s mom, Abigail, and her mother, Jennifer. During a victim impact statement, Abigail said her son, who was two-and-a-half when Ava died and four when Harper died, “in my eyes is overlooked so much. He’s seven years old and I had to explain to him where his sisters were.”
Zachary will serve a minimum of 18 years, less credit for time served since his arrest. He has also been ordered, at the family’s request, to attend counseling in prison and to have no contact with Abigail, her son, and Jennifer.
On September 24, 2021, 28-year-old Zachary Littell was transferred from the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office to North Carolina Central Prison in Raleigh to begin serving his sentence. According to the North Carolina Department of Corrections website, Zachary was placed into the prison’s general population. Won’t it be terribly unfortunate if some of the other, bigger, meaner inmates found out what he’s in for?
My deepest sympathy goes out to Abigail, her son, and everyone else who loved Harper and Ava. I can’t imagine how broken their hearts must be, and I hope they’re all able to heal and move forward while keeping both of these sweet little girls’ memories alive.
Click here for my previous coverage of Harper’s story.
Sources: NewsChannel12, WBTW News 13, The News & Observer, te Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, Facebook, WITN, WNCT9, Spectrum News, JDNews, VINElink, North Carolina Department of Corrections website