Defense disputes findings in death

Pathologist says autopsy of invalid can't prove homicide

February 03, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

A defense pathologist challenged the findings of the chief medical examiner's office yesterday in the second day of a macabre trial stemming from the discovery of a mummified corpse in an Essex home last year.

Patricia Thomas, 51, is charged with homicide in the death of a disabled woman who checked herself out of a nursing home to move in with Thomas and her family. The body of Marion V. Cusimano, 66, was found decomposing in a bedroom by police last year after Thomas' husband called to report Cusimano's death 14 months after it occurred.

Prosecutors have accused Thomas, a former nursing home aide, of killing Cusimano by neglecting her medical needs -- leaving her unbathed, unfed and unattended in the months before her death. She is charged with first-degree murder, abuse of a vulnerable adult and two counts of theft.

`A quantum leap"

Defense attorney Stephen L. Miles acknowledged yesterday that his client might have been neglectful and dishonest, but could not be found guilty of first-degree murder.

"I'm not defending Mother Teresa here," he said. "There's a macabreness here that puts everybody off. But from neglect to homicide -- it's a quantum leap. I think it's a far stretch."

Dr. Dennis J. Chute, a forensic pathologist with the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore, testified yesterday that he had ruled the death a homicide after performing an autopsy and reading police reports and the victim's medical records.

Combined to cause death

Chute said records showed Cusimano had advanced multiple sclerosis and the autopsy indicated malnutrition. "Together, these two problems combined to cause her death," he said.

Miles challenged that assessment yesterday by calling his only witness: Dr. John E. Adams, a former medical examiner for Maryland and a forensic pathologist, teacher and author who said that he believed the medical evidence was inconclusive.

"The cause of death was not able to be determined by an autopsy because of the lady's degree of mummification," Adams told Circuit Judge John Grason Turnbull II, who will decide the Thomas case. "Nutritional status is not easy to deduce under the best circumstances, and in a case like this, it would be impossible."

Prosecutors called Dr. John A. Smialek, the chief medical examiner, who under intense cross-examination by Miles defended the practice of using police reports, witness accounts and other documentation to determine the cause of death. Maryland law requires medical examiners to use such information, he said.

`Vulnerable individual'

"We have the picture of an extremely vulnerable individual -- someone suffering multiple sclerosis that made her dependent on other people to provide the food and sustenance she needed for life," Smialek said.

"She couldn't get up to obtain food and fluid. The condition of her body, the appearance of her body was consistent with her not being provided the type of care that she needed," Smialek said.

Turnbull will hear closing arguments and issue a verdict tomorrow when the trial resumes.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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