Babies were suffocated, SIDS expert tells court

Prosecution rests in Montgomery trial of man in boy's death

July 28, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- A nationally known expert on sudden infant death syndrome testified yesterday that 2-month-old Brandi Jean Wilson's face was pressed into her bedding until she died.

Dr. Linda Norton told a Montgomery County jury that after reviewing all the records in the deaths of Brandi Jean and her half-brother Garrett Michael Wilson, she has no doubt that both babies were murdered.

As Norton explained her findings, the babies' father, Garrett Eldred Wilson, sat 20 feet away at the defense table, furiously taking notes on a yellow legal pad.

Wilson, 43, has been charged with first-degree murder in Montgomery County in the death of his son in 1987 and in Prince George's County in the death of his daughter in 1981.

Prosecutors say he killed the infants in their cribs for $190,000 in insurance money. Wilson says his children died of SIDS.

The prosecution in the death of Garrett Michael rested yesterday, and Wilson's lawyer, Barry Helfand, estimates he will complete his presentation to the jury today. The case may go to the jury tomorrow afternoon.

Working with enlarged pictures of Brandi Jean taken by police after her death, Norton explained why the baby's face was red on its perimeter but white from midforehead to the upper lip.

Gravity makes blood pool after death, and a baby on her stomach, as Brandi Jean was, would have a red face, she said. But pressure on the back of the baby's head would prevent that from happening to the center of the face, she said.

"This is suspicious right off the bat," Norton said, using a red laser pointer to draw circles around the white blotch on the center of the face. "No child or adult I know sleeps with their face smack down on the bed."

Garrett Michael died much in the same manner, she said, his nose and mouth blocked by bedding, a hand or shoulder.

Norton, a forensic pathologist, said SIDS is not a disease or a diagnosis, but a catchall term used by the medical profession to describe deaths for which a cause cannot be determined.

SIDS, she said, "became abused" by coroners who used it as a cause of death rather than spending money on investigations or conducting "distasteful" autopsies that upset families.

When applied to multiple deaths in the same family, SIDS became a convenient cover for "an individual who is murdering children," she said.

Norton said the chance of one child in a family dying of SIDS is 1 in 2,000. The odds of a second child in the same family dying of SIDS is one in 4 million.

Helfand questioned why the state medical examiners who conducted the autopsies failed to see what she did.

"There is no neon sign inside the body that says, `I was suffocated,' " Norton replied, noting that she was in the "enviable position" of having 850 pages of documents on both cases to compare and knowing of the insurance policies.

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

Earlier yesterday, the state's chief medical examiner explained why he eliminated SIDS as the cause of death in both cases.

Dr. John E. Smialek testified that while the symptoms of suffocation and SIDS were similar by definitions used in 1981, medical standards became tougher in 1989.

When asked by Montgomery County prosecutors in 1997 to review Garrett Michael's death, Smialek said he determined that "someone physically obstructed his airway" and changed the cause of death to homicide. He testified that while the evidence in Brandi Jean's case "made the circumstances of her death suspicious," he could only rule the cause of death as being undetermined.

Pub Date: 7/28/99

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