Aunt's free speech case over Dante Mullinix's death nears an end

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

A local man remains set to go to trial in two months, charged in the death of a 2-year-old boy four years ago.

But as attorneys prepare to take the case against Tyree Bowie to a York County jury, a side controversy is heading for a final decision on the federal level.

The victim’s aunt, Sarah Mullinix, alleges the judge in the case violated her First Amendment rights by ordering her to delete images of evidence she posted online. The images, she alleges, pointed to failings by the York County Children, Youth and Families agency to protect her nephew, Dante Mullinix.

Dante Mullinix

Common Pleas Judge Gregory Snyder, on the other hand, argues he was protecting evidence, that the aunt took the wrong route for her lawsuit and that the federal court can’t interfere with his role as a trial judge.

He accused her of “forum shopping,” court documents show.

The two filed arguments over the last week seeking a summary judgment from U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Wilson in Harrisburg.

“If Snyder isn’t in the wrong, then let’s let Harrisburg decide if his order is unconstitutional instead of trying to dismiss and sweep things under the rug,” Mullinix told The York Dispatch.

Snyder declined to comment.

The trial in the criminal case is scheduled to begin Dec. 5.

Bowie, 43, faces murder and child endangerment charges. He is accused of killing 2-year-old Dante in September 2018.

Tyree Bowie

Investigators said Dante’s mother, Leah Mullinix, left the boy with Bowie while she went to York Hospital for a medical issue one evening. Bowie went out with Dante, though allegedly gave investigators conflicting accounts about their initial whereabouts.

But within a couple of hours, Dante choked on cookies, and Bowie allegedly took him to the hospital and fled, investigators said.

The boy died several days later as a result of a traumatic brain injury, as well as strangulation and chest compression injuries, according to a coroner’s report.

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Bowie was arrested soon after, with police saying he was the last person to have Dante in his care.

Sarah Mullinix, however, has said she believes Bowie is innocent in the 2-year-old’s death and that others were responsible, according to court documents. She has also blamed CYF for failing to take enough action with reports and complaints about Dante’s welfare for months, including one report filed in the days before the boy was hospitalized.

Her criticism of the agency became a cause, which included starting a Facebook group, “Justice for Dante.”

On April 26, a billboard, leased by Sarah Mullinix of Adams County, refers to the death of her 2-year-old nephew, Dante Mullinix, in September 2018.

In April, she leased a spot on a digital billboard’s rotation along Interstate 83 north of York City. The sign called out CYF as it ran for a month in the weeks before Bowie’s initial trial date, which was set for May 2.

Mullinix, at one point, got ahold of CYF documents provided to Bowie’s defense as part of the homicide case. She then posted images of the documents to her Facebook group, according to court records.

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That led to the York County District Attorney’s Office charging her with illegally releasing confidential documents under the state’s child protective services law in January 2021, court records show.

The charge was dropped about nine months later. Mullinix then filed a lawsuit against District Attorney Dave Sunday in federal court, alleging he violated her First Amendment rights, and she sought an injunction to prevent further charges, records show.

That case is apparently still active.

As the apparent next link in the chain, Judge Snyder issued a gag order that October to halt the posting of documents from the homicide case.

Mullinix responded by filing a federal suit against him. She sought another injunction, alleging the gag order unconstitutionally violated her free speech rights while leaving her open to being found in contempt.

Dante Mullinix was two weeks shy of his third birthday when he was killed.

The federal judge denied Mullinix her injunction in May, siding with Snyder’s arguments that she didn’t take an opportunity to appeal the gag order in the local and state courts first.

The case didn’t end there, since the judge left open the route for Mullinix to get a declaratory ruling from the court.

Snyder sought to dismiss that second prong of the case with a Sept. 30 filing. He primarily argued that the federal court shouldn’t overstep jurisdictions and interfere with how he, as a judge, oversees Bowie’s homicide case as it heads to trial in Common Pleas court.

In his filing, Snyder pointed out that letting Mullinix pursue declaratory relief undermines his judicial immunity and public interest because he would have to worry about defending his decisions in civil lawsuits.

“It eviscerates the bedrock principle that judges should not fear being hauled into court for judicial actions,” the brief states.

Snyder also described in court records how he held a hearing on his gag order last November to give Mullinix a chance to argue for her right to post the CYF documents. She didn’t show up, nor did she appeal the order through the state courts, he said, while accusing her of “forum shopping.” He noted that neither he nor prosecutors have sought to enforce the order.

Mullinix followed by pushing for a declaration Tuesday that the gag order violated her free speech rights. The brief makes points that First Amendment rights trump other concerns, especially when the issue involves debate over government activities.

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Mullinix argues that posting the CYF documents was part of ongoing public debate on her allegations that the agency didn’t do enough to protect her nephew, as well as her beliefs that Bowie is innocent and that the DA's office is prosecuting the wrong person, according to the filing.

Several cases are cited in which federal courts upheld rights to share or broadcast truthful information, including situations where people got the information illegally and gave it to the broadcasters. The filing also cites a Supreme Court decision to let the New York Times and the Washington Post continue publishing the “Pentagon Papers” on U.S. Vietnam War policy over the White House’s objections in 1971.

Leah Mullinix

“Publication of the CYF documents … is no less protected under the First Amendment than was publication of the Pentagon Papers,” Mullinix’s brief states.

A decision on the arguments in the federal case has not yet been made.

As Bowie’s trial approaches, Dante Mullinix’s mother is also still charged in connection with the case. She faces a felony count of child endangerment, which was initially filed in January 2019. Her next Common Pleas court hearing is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2023, about a month after Bowie’s trial is set to begin.

— Reach Aimee Ambrose at aambrose@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @aimee_TYD.