DENTON -- Jurors in the capital murder trial of Michael Whittlesey received a crash course in forensic pathology yesterday when a defense lawyer and a former staff doctor with the state medical examiner's office clashed over how Jamie Griffin died nearly 11 years ago at the age of 17.
Whittlesey, 29, is on trial charged with killing Jamie, a Dulaney High School senior who disappeared from his Baltimore County home April 2, 1982, and whose remains were discovered buried in Gunpowder Falls State Park in the spring of 1990.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Whittlesey, who is serving a 25-year sentence for the robbery of Jamie's car keys, money and the theft of Jamie's car and some of his possessions.
Until prosecutors put Dr. Frank J. Peretti on the witness stand yesterday, testimony about the cause of Jamie's death had been limited to a taped conversation Whittlesey had with a friend, during which the defendant said Jamie struck his head against a tree while he was high on a hallucinogenic drug.
But Dr. Peretti, a former staff pathologist with the state medical -- examiner's office, said an examination of Jamie's remains revealed that the youth suffered several hard blows to the head and more than 10 stab wounds to the torso.
Pointing to a torn short-sleeved shirt recovered with Jamie's remains, Dr. Peretti told the jury the cuts showed "nice smooth, clean-cut margins . . . consistent with stab wounds." He said the tears were consistent with a number of "defects" or wounds he found while examining Jamie's ribs. When asked by Baltimore County prosecutor Angela White how Jamie died, Dr. Peretti answered quickly: "Homicide."
Then came a 90-minute grilling of Dr. Peretti by Assistant Public Defender Jerri Peyton, who contended that the suspicious marks on Jamie's remains could have been caused by natural deterioration and by the efforts police undertook to search for the youth's body.
Using dozens of photographs of Jamie's remains and an anatomy text, Ms. Peyton challenged Dr. Peretti's conclusions.
Could metal probes police used to search the park for Jamie's body have caused some of the damage to his bones? she asked. Was the doctor aware that a searcher had stood on Jamie's remains, which were covered with a few inches of dirt, before they were excavated? Could pressure on the bones have caused the fractures? Could some of the "stab" marks on Jamie's ribs be nothing more than the effects of time and weather?
A determined Dr. Peretti insisted that his conclusions were correct. "You say it's a fracture. I say it's a stab wound," he told Ms. Peyton several times. But in the end, he gave Ms. Peyton the answer she was seeking.
"Sure," he said. "Anything's possible."
Police and volunteers searching the park where Jamie was thought to have been buried found shovels, pieces of bone, clothing, rope, gloves and three knives, but none was ever determined to have been associated with Jamie's disappearance.
Prosecutors, who concluded their case against Whittlesey yesterday, never introduced what they said was the murder weapon.
Defense attorneys are scheduled to present their case to the jury today.
Whittlesey is believed to have been the last person seen with Jamie the day he disappeared. His trial was moved from Baltimore County to Caroline County on the Eastern Shore.