RUSSELL COUNTY, Ala. (WRBL) – A controversial sentencing decision by Russell County Judge Walt Gray has left both prosecutors and investigators stunned, as a Fort Moore soldier, Bryan Starr, who pleaded guilty to the Felony Manslaughter of his girlfriend’s young son, may avoid jail time altogether.
The sentencing, which took place on Wednesday, has drawn criticism from both Russell County District Attorney Rick Chancey and Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor.
The tragic event that led to the charges occurred on a cold and rainy November night in 2020. Starr ordered his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son, Austin Birdsey, out of the car near a church off Highway 165. The little boy was reportedly having behavior problems and Starr told him he could find a new family at the church. Surveillance videos were rolling as Starr refused to let Austin back into the vehicle, even as the young boy chased after it and begged to get back in. Instead, Starr drove off in the rain. Desperate for help, Austin ran to the church’s locked door. In his distress, he lost a shoe but didn’t stop to retrieve it. Tragically, Austin was struck moments later and killed by a passing vehicle on Highway 165
District Attorney Rick Chancey vividly recalled the heartbreaking video evidence of Austin’s futile struggle for help. “Watching that baby, I will never get the image out of my mind of that baby frantically looking for help. He was left and abandoned, it’s heartbreaking,” said Chancey.
Starr pleaded guilty to Felony Manslaughter as part of a plea deal with the District Attorney’s office, which had recommended a 60-month jail sentence. However, Judge Walt Gray imposed a five-year reverse split sentence, a decision that has raised significant concerns amongst those who investigated and prosecuted the case.
Under this sentence, Starr does not immediately serve jail time. Instead, he starts with three years of probation, during which he is required to perform Sunday trash pickup along Highway 165, the very place where Austin lost his life. After three years, the judge has the discretion to extend the probation period or impose a two-year jail term, meaning Starr might never serve jail time for his role in Austin’s death.
District Attorney Rick Chancey expressed his shock and disappointment over the sentencing decision. Sheriff Heath Taylor, whose investigators were haunted by the helplessness they witnessed in the video of Austin’s final moments, shared similar sentiments. “We watched a video where he had several opportunities to put the child back in the car and go home. I do think his actions at the church should have been different, and I think the sentence should’ve reflected that,” said Sheriff Taylor.
Both Chancey and Taylor respect the judge in the case and understand he made his decision after hearing from several character witnesses who testified in favor of Starr. Still, they both believe the sentence falls short of delivering justice for Austin Birdsey and sends a distressing message to adults responsible for the well-being of children.
WRBL has reached out to Starr’s defense attorney, Eric Fundeburk for a comment. When Starr took the plea deal he told the judge, “Things got out of control.” And District Attorney Chancey says he did not see the remorse in the defendant he had hoped to see.
Austin’s father had seen a video of the boy in a church parking lot.
“I saw a terrified little boy looking for somebody to take care of him,” the father said of the video. “Put him back in the car. Let him in the church. As strong-willed as that little boy was, he said, ‘I will go home myself.’ He was just looking for someone to take care of him.”
Starr and the boy’s mother, Christina Birdseye, have since married. The boy’s mother took the stand in the victim’s impact hearing. She was not in the car when the tragic events occurred. She said the blame for this rests with multiple people. She said Starr blames himself.
Starr, a Sgt. 1st Class soldier in the 36th Brigade, is currently in the process of retiring.