Baltimore County judge may drop child murder case against mother

Time it took to rule 1972 death a homicide a source of concern

Metro: News from around the Baltimore region

July 19, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge said yesterday that he will consider a request to dismiss the murder case against a woman accused of fatally beating her 5-year-old son more than three decades ago but not charged until an e-mail from the boy's brother prompted police to reopen the case last year.

Judge John G. Turnbull II said he is concerned that the time it took for the state medical examiner's office to rule the case a homicide will make the charges difficult for Diane B. Coffman, 58, to answer, but said he needs to hear what the doctor who reviewed the case last year has to say before deciding whether the case should proceed.

The original finding of the cause of Edward Randolph Coffman's 1972 death was blunt force trauma, and the manner was listed as "undetermined." The medical examiner's office reclassified the manner of death as homicide last year.

"I want to know why it took that long to figure that out," Turnbull said during a hearing yesterday.

The medical examiner's testimony likely would not be offered until the trial, which is scheduled for Nov. 14.

In the 32 years between the boy's death and the filing of charges, no new evidence has surfaced to justify a different medical examiner's decision, said Domenic R. Iamele, Coffman's attorney.

Many of the witnesses Diane Coffman would need to call to adequately defend herself - including the original medical examiner, Ronald N. Kornblum - have since died, he said.

But prosecutor Sue Hazlett argued yesterday that scientific advances have given doctors a better understanding of traumatic injuries like those suffered by Edward. Had he performed the autopsy today, Kornblum would likely have taken a different view of the case, she said.

Diane Coffman told investigators in 1972 that Edward fell in the bathtub while arguing with his younger brother, Richard, then 3, in the family's Woodlawn-area home, according to charging documents. She said she found Edward dead in his bed the next morning, the documents state.

The case remained inactive for the next 32 years - until Richard Coffman sent an e-mail to Baltimore County police, saying he believed his mother caused his brother's death, according to charging documents. That e-mail prompted a new look at the original autopsy and investigative reports.

Diane Coffman was charged late last year with murder, and the case was later expanded to include child abuse charges involving both Edward and Richard. But prosecutors dropped the child abuse charge involving Richard yesterday, saying they wanted to keep the case's focus on Edward's death.

Although authorities had trouble finding Richard Coffman earlier this year, they have since located him, Hazlett said.

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