Defense expert in murder trial says baby’s injury could have occurred much earlier; jury sees video of autopsy
photo by: Mike Yoder
Story updated: 7:33 p.m., July 23, 2018
The fracture at the base of 9-month-old Oliver “Ollie” Ortiz’s skull displayed signs of healing, indicating the injury was days or even a week old when he died, an out-of-state forensic pathologist testified Monday.
That analysis contradicts a cornerstone of the state’s murder case against Oliver’s day care provider: the local coroner’s ruling that Oliver’s death was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma to the head, forceful enough to render him unresponsive right away and, without intervention, dead within minutes.
The state rested its case and the defense team began putting on evidence Monday, the sixth day of a trial against Carrody M. Buchhorn, 44, of Eudora. Buchhorn is charged with first-degree murder in Oliver’s death on Sept. 29, 2016, at Sunshine Kids Group Daycare Home, 1307 Chestnut Lane in Eudora.
Buchhorn murder trial coverage
The trial, which began July 16, is scheduled to continue through Wednesday in Douglas County District Court. Judge Sally Pokorny is presiding.
Hired by Buchhorn’s defense team, Seattle-based forensic pathologist Carl Wigren spent all afternoon on the witness stand, and will return Tuesday morning for further questioning.
Wigren reviewed the local coroner’s work, including a video of the autopsy, photos of the body, written reports and slides of tissue samples.
Viewed under a microscope, samples taken from either end of the fracture at the base of Oliver’s skull showed some fibrous tissue beginning to form, a sign the injury didn’t immediately precede death, Wigren said.
“On the part where the fracture was, there was actually some healing that was beginning,” Wigren said. “It could be a day, or probably more like days, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it was even a week old.”
Also, Wigren said, tissue from the area contained iron, a byproduct of a healing hematoma — the term for a pocket of blood collecting where it shouldn’t after vessels rupture within the body.
“That is your clue that there was an old bleed,” Wigren said.
Questioned by defense attorney Paul Morrison, Wigren said skull fractures are “easy” to get.
“They’re actually very common,” Wigren said. “… but they often don’t have fatal consequences.”
Wigren said some people don’t have symptoms after getting a skull fracture, or symptoms could include a headache, or limited brain swelling that would cause nausea, vomiting or lethargy. Using an analogy, he said in some cases, brain swelling could “smolder” for a while before suddenly “catching fire” and becoming lethal.
Wigren said a goose egg that formed on Oliver’s head after CPR — which he underwent for 52 minutes before being pronounced dead — appeared yellowish in photographs, indicating the underlying bruise may have been days old, as well.
Wigren also addressed Oliver’s torn liver and bleeding in other abdominal organs and, agreeing with the local coroner, said those could have been caused by CPR.
Ultimately, when asked by Morrison whether he knew what killed Oliver, Wigren cited the baby’s numerous injuries and said he did not.
Cross-examining Wigren, prosecutor C.J. Rieg first tore into his credentials and motivation.
Wigren has been called as a defense witness in murder trials — including alleged child abuse deaths — across the country in recent years, according to media reports.
He makes about half of his income from criminal defense, he said, and the rest from reviewing deaths for civil court cases, performing autopsies for local governments in Washington or private autopsies for families.
Rieg asked how much Wigren was being paid for this case.
He’s charging the defense $400 per hour for testimony, $300 per hour for reviewing medical records and $175 per hour for travel, Wigren said. He agreed when Rieg calculated that adds up to more than $6 a minute.
Rieg tediously quizzed Wigren about his curriculum vitae dating back years, including titles of presentations he attended, talks he had given to community groups and particulars of a number of specific criminal cases in which he had testified.
In a somewhat confrontational exchange that followed — with Morrison objecting intermittently — Rieg asked questions the doctor repeatedly said he could not answer without consulting documents, and the doctor repeatedly corrected Rieg’s pronunciation of anatomical terms and said he could not understand her questions.
At one point, the judge paused to ask Buchhorn’s defense attorneys, who were whispering during testimony, if they needed a break to consult.
“We just were unprepared for this type of cross-examination,” Veronica Dersch said, and the judge called a 5 minute recess.
Autopsy video played in court
Earlier Monday, the defense played a video of the autopsy on Oliver’s body, filmed with the body camera of a Eudora police officer who viewed the procedure, along with a Eudora police detective.
The video was later altered to blur the child’s body for purposes of playing it in court. Also for sensitivity, brief segments were muted.
“Somebody isn’t telling us something,” then-Douglas County coroner Erik Mitchell says as he discovers and explores the skull fracture and related internal bruising, which were not visible until he cut into the body.
The force needed to create that injury, in the area of the brainstem, would have quickly rendered the baby unresponsive, Mitchell had testified in person on Friday, when called as a witness by the state.
But Buchhorn (in police interviews played for the jury), day care owner Gina Brunton, Oliver’s parents and numerous first responders all said last week that they didn’t see and don’t know who or what hurt Oliver.
As the examination unfolds, the officers ask questions about possible explanations for Oliver’s injuries. Mitchell shares a number of them — including the possibility that injuries could have been caused by “a drop” — but refutes much of that speculation as he gets deeper into the examination.
Mitchell also says, “Kids get broken skulls fairly often” and do survive them, and sometimes injuries progress slowly before symptoms are seen.
In Oliver’s case, however, Mitchell says the injuries reflect a significant hit that would have rendered him unresponsive quickly.
“Something happened that was bad,” Mitchell said. “Somebody should have provided care earlier than they did.”
photo by: Mike Yoder
Fellow mother testifies to day care’s reputation
The defense’s first witness Monday morning was a Eudora mother of five who said that both Buchhorn and her boss had an “outstanding” reputation for child care in town.
Erica Lynne Ganson had one child, a toddler, at Sunshine Kids with Oliver.
She said that, in the weeks leading up to Oliver’s death, many kids had been sick with colds and ear infections.
She said Buchhorn and the day care owner, Brunton, had chatted with her about this during morning drop-off and also mentioned that they thought something was wrong with Oliver. They told her they had called his parents, who had taken him to the doctor, she testified.
Ganson said she recalled Oliver crying in the mornings in the weeks prior to his death, and she described it as a “hurt cry.”
Upon cross-examination by Rieg, Ganson said the cry was not unusual for a baby with an earache or who was teething, both common conditions for a 9-month-old.
• March 21, 2017 — Investigation into death of infant at Eudora daycare nearing completion