Could an aunt's activism taint jury selection for trial in 2-year-old boy's death?

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Two months before going to trial, prosecutors accusing Tyree Bowie of killing a 2-year-old boy turned up the heat on a request they had left simmering since May: They wanted an outside jury to hear the case.

The attorneys argued Wednesday about whether they could find an objective jury in York County after the public scrutiny the case has received. While their deliberations were public, the motion seeking the outside jury was itself made under seal, and the attorneys on both sides refused comment after the hearing.

In court, the prosecution argued that the activism of the boy's aunt, Sarah Mullinix, and subsequent news coverage constituted what they described as an "October surprise" that tainted the jury pool against them.

Tyree Bowie

Mullinix has repeatedly spoken out on the case via social media and a roadside billboard. Meanwhile, the prosecutor raised other points about the possibility that family members would wear T-shirts supporting Bowie in court.

“It is more than reasonable to anticipate that here will be such an action again that will impermissibly taint the jury,” First Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker said.

At issue, according to Barker: Could new developments in the case, and attention to such — including this very article, considering a previous Dispatch report was cited in the motion seeking an outside jury — add to what prosecutors argued was “ongoing sensationalism” that would taint a jury of York County residents?

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Bowie's case has languished in the court system for four years.

Judge Gregory Snyder wondered aloud if the York County District Attorney’s Office was premature in arguing that jurors could be tainted before going through the jury selection process.

“Certainly, there’s a speculative nature to what you’re talking about here,” he said.

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

Snyder also pointed out that the process of seeking permission from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to select an out-of-county jury could also delay Bowie’s case.

He denied the request but left the door open to make it again later if potential jury taint is more certain going into trial.

“I’m not going to grant the motion now. That does not mean I’m not going to grant it in the future,” Snyder said. “One way or the other, this case is going to go to trial.”

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Mullinix disagreed with the pursuit of an outside jury based largely on her activism. She also criticized the four years it has taken to bring Bowie’s case to trial.

“There are other cases with way more publicity, and most are even sentenced by or before two years,” she said Thursday. “Them worrying about what everyone else is doing when we are exercising our constitutional rights.”

Sarah Mullinix

So, what happened to bring this homicide case to the point of seeking an outside jury?

Such a request is rare.

Barker said Wednesday this was the first time in more than 20 years, since April 2002, that the district attorney's office has requested an outside jury. He pointed to the “extraordinary nature” of events surrounding Bowie’s case.

On the evening of Sept. 6, 2018, investigators said, Bowie agreed to watch 2-year-old Dante Mullinix while the boy’s mother, Leah Mullinix, went to York Hospital to seek treatment.

Bowie apparently went around town with Dante over the course of a couple of hours, and in that time the boy was given cookies.

Bowie allegedly told investigators that Dante started choking, but he gave conflicting information on where that occurred. He then took the boy back to York Hospital.

Investigators said police were called to the facility about an unresponsive child around 10:30 that night.

Dante died several days later. Traumatic brain injury, strangulation and chest compression injuries were deemed the cause.

Dante Mullinix

Bowie was arrested a few days later. Charges of first- and third-degree murder, along with child endangerment, were filed against him.

Since then, Dante's aunt, Sarah Mullinix of Adams County, has waged a social media campaign on her nephew’s behalf through a Facebook page, Justice For Dante.

She alleges police got the wrong guy. She’s been vocal about her assertions that other people known to her sister, Leah, had physically injured Dante and caused other medical problems.

Mullinix also accused the York County Children, Youth and Families agency of failing to protect Dante and move him out of a dangerous situation. She alleged staff didn’t take appropriate action to respond to months of reports and concerns about the boy’s welfare.

CYF eventually responded to a child abuse report, filed Sept. 1, 2018, by employees at a shelter where Leah and Dante stayed. The report included concerns about whether the boy was receiving adequate medical care for an infection.

Agency staff reportedly spoke to Leah and had her fill her son’s prescriptions.

Around that time, Sarah Mullinix had also filed for custody of Dante in Adams County. He died before that case was resolved.

Since the boy's death, Leah Mullinix also faces a child endangerment charge.

Sarah Mullinix drew fire around July 2020 when she posted images of CYF documents to her Justice For Dante page — documents from the homicide case that Bowie allegedly sent her.

She was charged with illegally releasing confidential documents, though the count was dropped about nine months later.

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Snyder, the judge, issued a gag order in October 2021 to halt the posting of documents from the homicide case.

Both situations led to Mullinix filing federal lawsuits against District Attorney Dave Sunday and Snyder on allegations that the criminal charge and the gag order violate her First Amendment rights.

Her suit against Snyder is still playing out. In motions filed earlier this month, she sought declaratory relief after an injunction on the order was denied.

A York Dispatch report on the developments in the federal case was apparently used as an exhibit in the motion to seek an outside jury for Bowie’s trial, based on arguments during Wednesday’s hearing.

Meanwhile, Bowie was previously scheduled to go to trial in early May.

About a week before the scheduled start, Mullinix leased a spot on a rotating digital billboard along Interstate 83 near Emigsville.

The sign called out CYF, saying Dante was murdered because staff left him “to die.” She said then that she raised about $1,500 through crowdfunding and a donation to pay for the monthlong ad. She said the billboard’s owner also helped out by giving her a discount.

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

The trial was delayed until December, and prosecutors pointed to publicity for the case as a concern when they indicated in May that they would seek an outside jury.

The motion to do that was apparently filed Oct. 5, and Wednesday's hearing was scheduled, according to court records. But the motion was under a seal and not made public since attorneys said it included case information.

Barker expressed concern Wednesday that Mullinix could attempt something similar to her billboard again close to the current trial date in December. That plus coverage of the ongoing federal litigation could sway prospective jurors in York County, he argued.

“It is our job, we believe, to raise this issue, given the extraordinary nature in what has occurred in this case,” Barker said of seeking an outside jury.

Chief Deputy Prosecutor Erin Kraska also pointed out that Bowie’s family, through a separate “Justice For Tyree” Facebook page, had posted plans to wear T-shirts supporting him at trial. She argued that showed an intent to taint jurors.

The post was later deleted.

A new post went up, with family members saying they learned they should reconsider making the shirts. And then that was apparently replaced by another new post about going back to printing the shirts.

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Bowie’s attorney, Farley Holt, indicated he’d rather be safe with an outside jury than sorry with a tainted local jury.

“We don’t want to start the process and have it all go bad. And it’s just going to put us off further down the road,” Holt said. “That’s our concern.”

Snyder questioned whether the circulation reach of local newspapers, or whether the approximately 5,400 users who “like” the Justice For Dante Facebook page, could have such an effect on York County’s estimated 400,000+ population that finding a fair jury would be impossible for the trial.

Noting that people are saturated with information from a variety of sources now, he questioned whether prosecutors thought prospective jurors wouldn’t be able to set aside things they’ve seen.

Barker and Kraska declined to comment after the hearing, saying that Snyder’s gag order prevents them from talking about the case.

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