Garrett Wilson case recalls 1972 trial

Murder: Until the Martha Woods matter, argued in a Baltimore court, authorities rarely questioned the sudden deaths of small children.

August 08, 1999|By Candus Thomson

MONTGOMERY COUNTY prosecutors used modern medical science to prove Garrett Eldred Wilson killed his infant son for $150,000 in insurance money.

But the foundation of Wilson's July 29 conviction was built 27 years ago in a Baltimore courtroom by a brilliant but eccentric federal judge, a dogged lawyer and two young doctors.

The sensational murder trial of Martha Woods in 1972 established a legal precedent and launched the careers of national experts on sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The judge in the case allowed the prosecutor to introduce evidence showing a deadly pattern to Woods' behavior. Wilson was convicted on the strength of that legal precedent and the testimony of one of the experts in the Woods case.

The Woods case is so compelling -- and the characters in it so dynamic -- that the Maryland Bar Association's continuing education program is creating a workshop around it.

"It's really one of those cases that has it all," said Andrew Levy, who teaches the Woods case to students at the University of Maryland law school and is preparing the workshop.

Woods was the the wife of a sergeant stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Of the nine children she cared for over 20 years, seven died mysteriously and two others were hospitalized with breathing problems and related complications. Three of the dead children were her natural offspring, two were children she adopted, one was a niece, one was a nephew and two were children of friends.

She might have gotten away with it, hiding behind phony grief and protected by a polite society that didn't pry into the deaths of youngsters. But Dr. Douglas Kerr took notice when Woods brought her 2-year-old adopted daughter, Judy, to Johns Hopkins Hospital. The child suffered from breathing problems. One month earlier, Woods' adopted son, Paul, had died at Hopkins after doctors could not restore his breathing.

"He [Dr. Kerr] smelled a rat," said Charles Bernstein, then an assistant U.S. attorney and now in private practice in Baltimore. "What he did was heroic. Remember, at that time you didn't accuse a mother of murder."

The young doctor first talked Woods into having Judy admitted to Hopkins to ensure the little girl's safety and to stall for time. Then he gathered and reviewed the health records and death certificates of the other children. All had been healthy. All had been alone with Woods. All had died inexplicably.

"It didn't add up. So many children were harmed, we knew it couldn't be SIDS," said Bernstein, who prosecuted Martha Woods in the case of Paul's death.

The term SIDS was coined in 1969 to replace "crib death" as the catch-all for babies under 2 years old who stop breathing. It is not a medical diagnosis, and experts believe that the term will fade from use in the next 10 years as science more accurately pinpoints the cause of death.

Many experts believe that the SIDS explanation has been overused by doctors needing a tidy answer for grieving parents. And coroners did not investigate SIDS deaths, which spared families the emotional hardship of an autopsy of a child.

It also was a convenient alibi for killers like Martha Woods.

Woods was charged with first-degree murder in connection with Paul's death. The trial was held in federal court, because the crime was committed at the army base.

Judge Frank Kaufman had bench conferences with both lawyers that lasted hours. After Bernstein's opening statement, Kaufman sent jurors home without explanation, then informed them by registered mail that the trial would be delayed indefinitely. Two weeks later, he resumed the trial, announcing "something had come up."

Bernstein faced three obstacles -- getting a jury to believe a mother could kill her children; clearly explaining the medical aspects; and getting Kaufman's permission to tell the jury about the other deaths.

Kaufman went out on a legal limb and admitted into evidence the deaths of the other children.

"Once we got the judge to put in the numbers, SIDS wasn't going to fly," Bernstein said.

During the course of the six-month trial, Bernstein built his case with the help of Dr. Vincent DiMaio, an Army forensic pathologist.

DiMaio testified that Paul's death did not result from an accident or natural causes. In fact, he told Kaufman, in light of the deaths of the other children under Woods' care, he believed "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Paul was murdered.

The jury convicted Woods, setting the stage for an appeal by her lawyer, Robert Cahill Sr., now a Baltimore County Circuit judge. Woods received a life sentence.

Cahill argued that evidence of the other crimes was not admissible.

But a federal appeals court upheld Kaufman's rulings and Bernstein's tactic of using the other deaths to prove a pattern, or Woods' criminal "signature."

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