Doctor explains switch from SIDS to homicide in cause of baby's death

Father on trial in killing of infant son also charged in death of his daughter

July 27, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Pinching his nostrils with one hand while clamping the other over his mouth, a medical examiner demonstrated to a Montgomery County jury yesterday how Garrett Michael Wilson might have been smothered in his crib by his father.

"Garrett Wilson had an obstruction -- either a hand or something akin to a towel or pillow -- placed over his airways long enough for him to cease breathing," Dr. Charles Kokes told jurors.

Kokes, who conducted the autopsy on the 5-month-old boy in 1987, said he changed his original findings last year from sudden infant death syndrome to homicide after Montgomery County authorities presented new information to him.

Garrett Eldred Wilson is accused of smothering two of his children for a total of $190,000 in insurance money. Wilson maintains both babies died of SIDS.

Prosecutors in Montgomery and Prince George's counties charged him with first-degree murder last year after police investigated suspicions brought to them five years ago by Garrett Michael's mother. Wilson is to stand trial in Prince George's Sept. 14 in the death of 2-month-old Brandi Jean Wilson.

Kokes said he reviewed Brandi Jean's records, read interviews with witnesses and learned of the insurance policies before changing his opinion of Garrett Michael's death.

"If you factor all those things together, the likelihood of Garrett Wilson's death from SIDS [is] so low as to make it impossible," Kokes said of the new evidence.

Kokes said Garrett Michael was a healthy baby and the autopsy showed no sign of disease. The baby did have cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain, he said.

Prosecutor David Boynton questioned Kokes about the odds of two children from the same family dying of SIDS and of the likelihood of Garrett Michael suffering from brain swelling and dying of SIDS.

Kokes said SIDS strikes one or two babies in every 1,000 live births, and that brain swelling in a sudden infant death occurs in less than 1 percent of the cases.

The odds of a second SIDS death in a family in combination with that death being accompanied by brain swelling is 1 in 100,000,000, Kokes said.

Defense side

Defense lawyer Barry Helfand hammered away at the altered death certificate, saying the only new factors were not medical but emotional: the insurance policies and the testimony of two grieving mothers.

He also questioned how doctors could list as a cause of death a condition that no one can explain.

Earlier yesterday, Dr. Ann Dixon, the deputy chief medical examiner who performed the autopsy of Brandi Jean in 1981, explained why she changed the cause of death from natural causes to "undetermined."

"I believe Brandi was probably suffocated. Her air was cut off by external means," she testified. "The suffocation was not a natural event."

She said the additional information supplied by prosecutors "throws a different light on the whole matter."

Expert to testify

The prosecution is expected to conclude its portion of the trial today by calling its star witness, Dr. Linda Norton. She is a nationally known SIDS and child abuse expert who examined the exhumed body of Lee Harvey Oswald and helped convict Green Beret Dr. Jeffrey McDonald of killing his family.

Norton also was a pivotal figure in two upstate New York cases involving parents convicted of killing their children under cover of SIDS. The stories became the basis of a 1997 best seller, "The Death of Innocents."

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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