Peter J. Snyder burst into tears as he told a jury how he went through his daughter Alyson's clothes and toys the day she died.
"I felt I had to go back in Alyson's room," he said. "I guess I felt that if I went back in there, she'd be in there alive . . . I pulled out her clothes, and started remembering how she'd looked when she wore them."
"It made me angry," he wailed. "I didn't know why my baby was gone!"
Snyder gave that emotionally wrenching testimony in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, where he and his wife Vicki are on trial on charges of second-degree murder in the death of their infant daughter.
Both flatly denied yesterday that they killed Alyson, aged 9 months, by failing to feed her enough food and fluids to prevent her death Nov. 22, 1989.
Near the end of his testimony, the Patuxent Naval Air Station sailor shouted, "NO!" when his defense attorney asked if he had murdered Alyson. "I loved my daughter! I would never have done anything to hurt her!"
Vicki Snyder, who also testified yesterday, was asked one question by her lawyer: Did she withhold fluids from Alyson in the days before the baby's death?
"No!" she said emphatically.
Prosecutor Gregory Welsh contends that Alyson died from dehydration because the Snyders failed to give her the nourishment that a Navy doctor had instructed them to give her.
The defense contends that Alyson Snyder died quickly from an undetected meningococcic infection; that a state medical examiner botched the autopsy after which he ruled the girl's death a homicide; and that Naval Investigative Service agents concocted evidence against the 21-year-old parents, who have two other children.
Peter Snyder told the jury that he and his wife worried about Alyson's health from birth when she failed to gain weight. "She was always sick," he said. But he said she was "happy" and playful despite her recurring illnesses.
The defendant said he and his wife fed Alyson formula, cereal and snacks regularly, kept a log of meals as instructed and were "very happy" when a Navy doctor told them in June 1989, five months after Alyson's birth, that she was healthy.
He said they were so crushed by Alyson's death they couldn't continue to live in their home on the base.
He also sharply contradicted testimony from Dr. Frank Peretti, a medical examiner who told the jury last week that Alyson's death was a homicide caused by dehydration from lack of fluids, which in turn caused an electrolyte imbalance in her brain.
"Dr. Peretti told me she died from meningitis," the father testified yesterday.
Under cross-examination, Vicki Snyder denied telling Navy investigators that she had heard Alyson crying during the night when the infant died, and denied telling the agents she had kissed her daughter on the forehead in the infant's crib that night.
Vicki Snyder also said Alyson showed no signs of illness the night she died.
In other testimony, a Johns Hopkins microbiologist testified adamantly that Alyson Snyder died from an early meningitis-type infection missed in the autopsy, and that the child's body showed several other significant signs of massive infection.
Peretti, who testified again in rebuttal, refused to change his conclusion. He repeatedly emphasized that "I had everything I needed" when he signed his autopsy report.
Defense attorneys pointed out on cross-examination that he signed the report Feb. 6, 1990, but did not receive results from an allegedly critical blood culture test until March 27, 1991.
Expert defense witnesses said that the blood culture and spinal fluid taken as part of the autopsy were tested far too late to yield useful information. Had those tests been done immediately after the baby's death, they could have revealed the massive infection that killed the child, those experts said.