Charges in baby's death thrown out, ending parents' 'living hell'

April 12, 1991|By Joel McCord

For the last year and a half, Peter Snyder says he and his wife, Vicky, have been "in a living hell."

But that changed yesterday when a federal judge took the extremely rare step of dismissing before the case reached the jury charges that the Navy supply clerk and his wife killed their daughter in November 1989 by denying her food and fluids.

Even if the jury had convicted the couple, Senior U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray said he would have been forced to "set aside" such a verdict because prosecutors had failed to prove their case.

"That's excellent, excellent," Mr. Snyder said later from his lawyer's office. "Our name has been dragged through the mud for so long, but now everybody knows that we didn't do what they said we did."

"The whole time, I was scared," Mrs. Snyder added. "I was afraid the jury could take some of this the wrong way."

Dr. Frank Peretti, a state medical examiner, ruled that the Snyders' 9 1/2 -month-old daughter, Alyson, died from an acute electrolyte imbalance brought on by dehydration and argued that the couple, both 21, starved the child to death.

But two defense experts, including the head of microbiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, concluded after reviewing the autopsy records that Alyson died from a particularly virulent strain of meningitis.

Judge Murray ruled that the experts' testimony outweighed Dr. Peretti's, noting that there was no other evidence that the Snyders , who lived in base housing at Patuxent Naval Air Station, abused Alyson "in any way."

"The medical examiner's knowledge of infectious diseases was awful," complained Tyler Johnston, who led the team of defense lawyers. "If he had any training in infectious diseases, he might not have reached those conclusions."

But Dr. Peretti insisted his findings were correct.

"The defense has to do what's necessary to win the case for their clients, and they did," he said. "They totally confused the issue. . . . They brought in their paid experts to contradict the autopsy. But as far as I'm concerned, there was no meningitis. No meningitis."

Dr. Peretti said he performed a series of tests because he originally thought Alyson might have died from meningitis, but ruled it out when the tests showed no signs of the disease.

But Dr. Patricia Charache, from Johns Hopkins Hospital, testified during the trial that Dr. Peretti missed several signs of meningitis. She said the bacteria might not have shown up on the tests because they are difficult to detect and could have been killed while the body was refrigerated before the autopsy.

Mr. Johnston called the investigation a "witch hunt" by Naval Investigative Service agents, who "jumped to conclusions when they heard from the medical examiner's office that this was a suspicious death."

He complained that the agents showed up at the Snyder home at 1:30 a.m. the day after Alyson died to question the couple and take pictures in hopes of making a case.

"They aren't saying anything other than what I would expect defensecounsel who just won a case to say," said Greg Welsh, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

Mr. Snyder has remained on duty at Patuxent since his daughter's death, commuting on weekends to the couple's home town of Cooperstown, Pa., where his wife moved with their other two children.

He said he is being transferred to the USS Guam, based in Norfolk, Va. He said he would move his family to an apartment in nearby Ocean View.

Anthony Gallagher, another defense lawyer, said he has told the Snyders they might sue for wrongful prosecution, but that it is unlikely they would win because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

Mr. Snyder said he and his wife "just want to get on with our lives."

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