RUSSELL COUNTY, Ala. (WRBL) – A Wednesday sentencing has drawn criticism from both Russell County District Attorney Rick Chancey and Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor as a Fort Moore soldier, Bryan Starr, who pleaded guilty to the Felony Manslaughter of his girlfriend’s son, may avoid jail time altogether.
In November 2020, Starr ordered his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son, Austin Birdsey, out of the car near a church off Highway 165. 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 he ran after it and begged to get back in. Instead, Starr drove off in the rain.
Austin first ran to the church’s locked door but was struck and killed moments later by a passing vehicle on Highway 165.
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, on Wednesday, Russell County Judge Walt Gray imposed a five-year reverse split sentence.
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.
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.
Chancey expressed his shock and disappointment over the sentencing decision, recalling the video evidence.
“I will never get the image out of my mind of that baby frantically looking for help,” Chancey said. “He was left and abandoned. It’s heartbreaking.”
Chancey said he did not see the remorse in the defendant he had hoped to see. Taylor shared similar sentiments.
“We watched a video where he had several opportunities to put the child back in the car and go home,” Taylor said. “I do think his actions at the church should have been different, and I think the sentence should’ve reflected that.”
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.”
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 Birdsey, have since married. Christina 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.