Cause of 9-month-old's death is debated Baby could have died from infection, doctor testifies at murder trial.

April 04, 1991|By Kelly Gilbert | Kelly Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

A federal prosecutor has told a jury here that a U.S. Navy supply clerk and his wife starved their 9-month-old daughter by depriving her of life-giving fluids and nourishment.

But a doctor who treated Alyson Nicole Snyder and examined her after her 1989 death testified yesterday, on cross-examination by a defense lawyer, that the child could have died from a variety of undetected illnesses -- including septicemia or meningitis -- rather than starvation as the government has charged.

The infant's parents, Peter J. and Vicki L. Snyder, both 21, of Patuxent Naval Air Station in Lexington Park, are charged with murder and are on trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The career sailor and his wife, who have two other small children, are charged with "willfully and unlawfully" killing their younger daughter, Alyson Nicole Snyder.

Prosecutor Gregory Welsh told the jury in opening statments yesterday that the Snyders "caused Alyson's death by depriving her of necessary fluids and nourishment" despite the instructions from doctors and nurses on how to feed the child.

An autopsy report attributed Alyson's death to dehydration and an acute electrolyte imbalance. Welsh said Dr. Frank Peretti, the assistant state medical examiner who performed the autopsy, ruled her death a homicide because he "found not a speck of food anywhere in this child's system."

Peretti also found elevated chemical levels in the child's brain that indicated she had gone without food for five to 10 days, Welsh said.

Defense attorneys countered that the baby was continually ill almost from her birth in February 1989. They contended that a state medical examiner botched an autopsy in which he ruled her death a homicide due to child neglect after she died the day before Thanksgiving that year.

The government's first witness, Dr. Michael J. Frac, a former Navy physician at Patuxent River Naval Hospital, testified that Alyson Snyder repeatedly gained and lost weight from the time she was born. He said a spectrum of medical tests performed on the baby to identify a recurring infection yielded negative results.

Frac said he also told the parents to feed the infant at least a quart of formula per day because "she was not taking in enough calories" to grow at a normal rate, and he said he suspected she was not being properly fed.

On cross-examination by Tyler Johnston, an assistant federal public defender, Frac testified that after he pronounced the child dead on arrival at the hospital he took samples of her spinal fluid to test it for infections. He said he wanted, but could not get from her body, blood samples that could have revealed an

infection.

The spinal fluid, Frac said, contained a high white blood count, an elevated protein level and a high lymphocyte count.

"Are those test results consistent with meningitis?" Johnston asked.

"Correct," the witness replied.

Frac said the child's body had a temperature of 102.2 after her death, which he could not explain.

He also testified that he could not rule out septic shock or septicemia, a massive, body-wide infection, as possible causes of her death.

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