Doctor says girl suffered disorder

Pathologist testifies for defense in death of 15-month old

Howard County

March 06, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The bleeding surrounding the brain of 15-month-old Alexa Shearer likely came not from trauma or shaking but from a disorder that prevented her blood from clotting, according to testimony yesterday by a forensic pathologist known for his work in high-profile trials.

But Dr. Michael Baden - whose resume includes defense testimony in the O. J. Simpson and Louise Woodward cases - also said he could not pinpoint a cause for the Columbia girl's death in November 1999 because not all of the necessary tests were performed at autopsy.

"I think that the autopsy was incomplete, and important studies were left out of the autopsy that prevented an accurate determination of the cause of death," Baden said as the murder trial of North Laurel day care provider Kathleen A. Butcher entered its third week in Howard Circuit Court.

Defense attorneys offered Baden, the chief medical examiner for the New York State Police, yesterday to cast doubt on the results of what they have characterized as a sloppy autopsy.

In his testimony, Baden rebutted not only the findings of prosecution experts, but also those of a defense expert who testified Friday that Alexa likely died of blunt force trauma to the head.

Alexa was in Butcher's care in her Sewall Avenue home Nov. 16, 1999, when she suffered cardiac arrest; the girl died two days later.

A medical examiner determined that the child died of head trauma caused by shaking and impact, and that the injuries were so severe the child would have been "symptomatic" almost immediately. Butcher told police that Alexa was acting normally all day, according to testimony.

Three experts - including a previous defense witness - have testified that head trauma was the ultimate cause of death, although that defense expert also said the child appeared to suffer from a chronic illness that could mask symptoms from a head injury.

Baden told jurors he could not determine for certain the cause of death. He said Alexa did not appear to suffer from shaken baby syndrome.

Baden said Dr. Jonathan Arden, Washington's chief medical examiner, should have more carefully monitored the organ donation process, particularly because "abnormalities" were in the child's abdominal area, from which the kidneys and liver were removed. Efforts of doctors to keep the girl's organs viable for transplant could have contributed to the bleeding and swelling in the brain, he said.

Arden also should have looked at slides of Alexa's brain under the microscope to determine the cause of her death, Baden said, a process that he said is routine at autopsy .

Under cross-examination, Assistant State's Attorney Danielle Duclaux attacked Baden's credibility, pointing out discrepancies between his testimony and his opinions as summarized in writing by defense lawyers.

Baden agreed that those written opinions were missing information and called them "a lawyer's opinion of what a forensic pathologist said."

He also said he did not talk with the Washington medical examiner or go to Arden's office to look at organs and bones that the medical examiner had saved from Alexa's autopsy before he formed his opinion.

Duclaux pointed out differences in Baden's definition of shaken baby syndrome yesterday compared with his testimony at previous trials.

In other testimony yesterday, Lorena Del Grosso, who watched Alexa two days a week, painted a picture of Alexa as a small child who was "ill frequently" and whose parents sent her to day care when she had a fever.

She said she once noticed a bruise near Alexa's navel, which she pointed out to the girl's father. "He didn't really seem to care," said Del Grosso, who lives three houses away from Butcher.

Alexa's parents previously had testified that they would call Butcher when they noticed bruises on the girl.

Butcher's obstetrician testified yesterday that Butcher is pregnant with her fifth child. Butcher had announced to her day care parents that she was pregnant with her fourth child hours before Alexa stopped breathing, according to previous testimony.

Testimony is expected to wrap up by midweek. Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. is presiding.

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