Patricia Stallings

Sentenced to life without parole for a crime that didn’t happen

When three-month-old Ryan Stallings became ill on July 9, 1989, his parents, Patricia and David Stallings, rushed him to a hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, where tests detected high levels of ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze, in his blood. On the suspicion that he had been poisoned, Ryan was placed in protective custody. A few weeks later, Patricia was permitted to visit him briefly. Ryan died the next day, September 4, and Patricia was arrested and charged with murder the day after that. Antifreeze was found in the basement of the Stallings’s home on Lake Wauwanoka, in Jefferson County, west of St. Louis.

At the time of her arrest, Patricia was pregnant. In February 1990, she gave birth to her second son, whom his parents named David Jr. Like his brother, David was placed in protective custody, where—even though he had no contact with Patricia—high levels of ethylene glycol were detected in his blood. His condition was diagnosed not as poisoning but as methylamalonic academia (MMA)—a rare genetic disorder that in all likelihood had claimed his brother’s life.

The significance of that seemed obvious, but Patricia’s lawyer, Eric Rathbone, failed to present evidence regarding MMA at her 1991 jury trial. He did tell the jury that Ryan could have died of natural causes—to which Jefferson County Prosecutor George B. McElroy III responded, “You might as well speculate that some little man from mars came down and shot him full of some mysterious bacteria.” The jury found Patricia guilty, and Circuit Court Judge Gary P. Kramer sentenced her to life in prison without parole.

The following May, the Stallings case was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries,” which William S. Sly, professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at St. Louis University, happened to see. Sly conducted additional tests on Ryan’s blood, confirming that he died of MMA—not poisoning.

When McElory was informed of the results, he consulted with Piero Rinaldo, a renowned geneticist from Yale University, who persuaded him that Patricia was innocent. September 20, 1991, McElroy announced at a press conference that the charges were being dismissed and personally apologized to the Stallings family. The same day, David Jr. was returned to the custody of his parents. With treatment, his long-term prognosis was thought to be good.

— Rob Warden