Free speech suit over Dante Mullinix case goes to federal appeals court

Aimee Ambrose
York Dispatch

Nearly one month ago, a York County jury found Tyree Bowie not guilty of murder in the 2018 death of 2-year-old Dante Mullinix.

The verdict freed Bowie from custody for the first time in four years — but it also vindicated the outspoken stance by Dante’s aunt, Sarah Mullinix. For years, she'd insisted that Bowie was innocent and that the criminal justice system failed both Bowie and her nephew.

Her position — and her refusal to back down — eventually led to head-on legal clashes with York County District Attorney Dave Sunday.

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

Bowie's trial reached its conclusion at the end of 2022, but Sarah Mullinix's fight continues. It has now reached federal court, where she has one free speech case against Sunday and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and another against Court of Common Pleas Judge Gregory Snyder.

Her mother, Victoria Schrader, also has a free speech case against Sunday and the attorney general, a part of which reached a U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Philadelphia on Monday.

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The two sides argued over a lower court’s injunction that blocks the D.A. and the attorney general from charging Schrader if she shares child welfare case records related to Dante that were deemed confidential under state law.

Sarah Mullinix originally posted the documents to Facebook in 2020, and for that, she was charged with a misdemeanor count of unauthorized release of information under the state’s Child Protective Services Law.

Though the charge was later dropped, it led to the tip-off of the federal suits by the fall of 2021.

Dante Mullinix

Both Sarah Mullinix and Schrader argued the state law infringed on their First Amendment rights. A federal district court judge granted the injunction in Schrader’s case last May.

“There’s an ongoing desire for her to be able to talk about her grandson and his tragic death,” Schrader’s attorney, Aaron Martin, told the three-judge panel.

Sunday appealed the injunction on a few points, including an argument that the case isn’t a constitutional issue, that the office is more concerned about the release of confidential information than blocking discussion of the topic.

“(Schrader) can publish whatever Sarah Mullinix has already posted, and we want to live to fight another day,” Sean Summers, the attorney representing the D.A.’s office, said Monday.

To understand the litigation, one has to understand the overall situation.

Tyree Bowie, of York City, during an interview at The York Dispatch in West Manchester Township, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The now-44-year-old Bowie was charged with murder and child endangerment in September 2018, a few days after Dante died at Hershey Medical Center. Investigators alleged Bowie savagely beat and brutalized the child while the two were alone together the night of Sept. 6. At the time, Bowie had agreed to babysit Dante while the boy’s mother, Leah Mullinix, went to York Hospital with a migraine.

Prosecutors pointed to Dante’s injuries, and an autopsy opinion that a traumatic brain injury killed him, to argue homicide, saying that the injuries had to have been caused that night.

Bowie and his attorney argued the death was accidental — a stance that ultimately convinced the jury.

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According to his account, Bowie watched Dante for about a couple of hours and then decided to take him back to Leah Mullinix at the hospital. On the way, he gave Dante a cookie, and said the boy choked on it in his car.

Bowie said he pulled Dante to the front seat, tried to dig the cookie out of his throat, give him CPR and resuscitate him. When he got him to the hospital, Dante was limp and not breathing.

Doctors got the boy breathing again, but he never regained consciousness. He died nine days later.

Bowie’s attorney, Farley Holt, accused Leah Mullinix of physically abusing and neglecting Dante for weeks and that Bowie took the fall for his death for four years.

Leah Mullinix

Holt pointed out she ignored her son’s worsening genital infection, which turned out to be herpes, for weeks that summer; that the two largely lived out of her car; and that Dante had bruises on him that Bowie never left on him.

While Holt put responsibility primarily on Leah Mullinix’s shoulders, testimony also implicated another man, a local gang member she associated with that summer. Leah was also charged in the case, and she pleaded guilty to a felony count of child endangerment earlier this month.

Sarah Mullinix has made similar assertions, primarily through her Facebook page, “Justice For Dante.”

She's openly criticized the investigation into Dante’s death, alleged Bowie was wrongfully prosecuted, and blamed the York County Children, Youth & Families agency for failing to protect her nephew by removing him from a dangerous conditions with his mother.

Sarah Mullinix

Release of CYF documents: Sarah Mullinix alleged that previous complaints to CYF, including those made by her and Bowie, went nowhere that summer. The agency didn’t get involved until staff at a shelter where Leah and Dante stayed complained about his continuous crying.

After Bowie was charged, he received documents through discovery from CYF related to Sarah Mullinix’s report about Dante’s welfare. The documents included information taken from a Pennsylvania Department of Human Services database.

Bowie sent the documents to Dante's aunt, and she then posted them to Facebook sometime in 2020. Police caught wind and investigated, and Sarah Mullinix was charged in January 2021 with misdemeanor unlawful release under the child protection law.

The charge was dropped that September, court documents show.

About a month later, Judge Snyder issued a gag order instead to prevent further release of the CYF documents.

By then, Sarah Mullinix and Schrader already filed their free speech suits against Sunday and then-attorney general Josh Shapiro — this was 2021, before Shapiro was elected governor.

Sarah Mullinix then sued Snyder on similar free speech grounds. She also kept up her advocacy, which included leasing a billboard last April that blamed CYF for Dante's death.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Wilson issued the injunction in Schrader’s case in Harrisburg about a month later.

Sunday appealed the ruling, though Shapiro’s office didn’t. And the issue went before the appeals court panel.

Looking to protect confidential information: Summers, speaking for the D.A.’s office, said Judge Wilson erred on a few points, including the child protection law issue. He argued the law doesn’t look to bar the content of speech related to information from the database. The law, he said, works to prevent the release of confidential information, such as people’s Social Security numbers and identifying information.

Summers also argued the court didn’t hold a hearing in the case before issuing the injunction. He said a hearing would have sussed out Schrader’s plans and what she’d publish.

“Factually, none of us know what documents she wants to publish,” he said.

Summers said the D.A.’s office wouldn’t prosecute Schrader for reposting what Sarah Mullinix already shared.

“No, we’re not going to prosecute her for that,” he said.

Martin argued Schrader’s goal is to republish the documents she got from Sarah Mullinix as part of ongoing advocacy since Dante’s death, but without fear she’d be prosecuted. He said she doesn’t have an interest in sharing sensitive information like Social Security numbers.

Summers, at one point, seemed to indicate Bowie was still charged in the case. Martin noted he was acquitted at trial, and that the advocacy for Dante extends to proving Bowie’s innocence, as well as showing CYF’s alleged failures in this case.

“There was a grave injustice that was in progress here, and my client wanted to talk about it,” he said.

Martin noted that the charges against Sarah Mullinix “squelched” Schrader’s desire to get involved. He’s also pointed out in court documents that Bowie didn’t face an additional charge under the child protection law for sharing the documents with the aunt.

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A lawyer for the attorney general’s office sided with the opposition to the injunction, that the law acts as a lock on confidential information and not as a censor.

He also indicated the office didn’t appeal as there’s no intention to prosecute, while noting the office was pulled into the suit but wasn’t involved in charging Sarah Mullinix.

The three-judge panel took the arguments under advisement at the end of the hearing.

Schrader’s lawsuit and both of Sarah Mullinix’s are still pending resolutions in the federal district court.

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