Teen's weight a factor in murder charge

Pa. youth died in Florida, possibly after starving

October 01, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - Prosecutors face a significant hurdle in explaining a 37-pound discrepancy in reports of Chester Miller's weight if they intend to file homicide charges against the adults who are accused of starving the teen-ager, several local attorneys said yesterday.

Pinpointing the cause of the stomach rupture that led to the 18-year-old's death will also be crucial because starvation alone is not viewed as a likely cause, a forensic expert said.

Miller's mother, Lyda, and her live-in-boyfriend, Paul Hoffman, are in the Luzerne County (Pa.) Correctional Facility on assault and endangerment charges.

Police said Hoffman let Chester Miller eat only scraps and leftovers for several months before putting him on a bus in Hazleton, Pa., with orders to find his biological father in Florida.

The Santa Rosa Medical Center in Milton, Fla., reported the 5-foot 3-inch-Miller weighed 63 pounds when he was admitted Sept. 21.

He died Wednesday, and a medical examiner determined he weighed 100 pounds.

Miller's weight is a crucial factor in determining whether he was intentionally starved, which could warrant a first-degree murder charge, or if the death resulted from negligence, which could lower the criminal culpability to third-degree murder, manslaughter or an endangerment charge, said Tom Marsilio.

Marsilio is a Wilkes-Barre attorney and former Luzerne County assistant district attorney who prosecuted Larry and Leona Cottam for the 1988 starvation death of their son, Eric.

"First-degree murder requires the specific intent to kill," Marsilio said. "If he did weigh 63 pounds, that makes the case for first-degree much easier. Here, the waters are very murky. ...

"If I were on the defense team, I'd latch on to that 100-pound estimate."

Dr. Cyril Wecht, Allegheny County, Pa., coroner and nationally known forensic expert, said he can't explain how Miller could have gained 37 pounds in the five days he was hospitalized.

Fluids given to the teen could explain part of the gain, but that would add 10 to 15 pounds at most, he said.

The normal weight range for someone Miller's height is 107 to 141 pounds, according to height and weight charts.

Wecht said he does not think 100 pounds is an excessively low weight.

"At 100 pounds for a 5-foot-3 person, you have a skinny individual," Wecht said.

"There may be reasons a person did not eat, which gets to the question, should medical attention have been sought. That's different than saying someone was intentionally starved."

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