Due to the weather, some customers may experience late delivery of The Roanoke Times. We apologize for the delay.
Experts testifying for the defense said that an older injury could have led to Aaron Edwards' daughter's death.
MATT GENTRY| The Roanoke Times
Aaron Edwards (center) looks on as attorneys discuss his case in Giles County Court in Pearisburg on Friday.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
PEARISBURG — Two medical professionals testified Wednesday that 7-month-old Ella Dawn Edwards likely died in March 2011 because her breathing was obstructed and her brain was deprived of oxygen.
The testimony — which came on the fourth day of Aaron Edwards’ involuntary manslaughter trial — contradicted other medical experts who served as witnesses for the prosecution.
Edwards, 26, was charged after he said he found his daughter unresponsive in the family’s Rich Creek home on March 1, 2011. An additional charge of child abuse and neglect was dropped Wednesday, after Edwards’ lawyer, Chris Tuck, argued that the prosecution had not presented evidence that Edwards abused Ella.
According to testimony in Giles County Circuit Court, when EMS personnel arrived at the home on March 1, 2011, they found Ella breathing but limp and unresponsive. Ella was taken to Carilion Giles Memorial Hospital and then flown to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where she underwent surgery to relieve pressure from swelling of her brain and remained on life support for several days before dying on March 8, 2011.
Gayle Suzuki, an assistant chief medical examiner for the state department of health, testified Tuesday that after performing an autopsy on Ella, she determined the cause of death to be abusive head trauma, which is also referred to as “shaken baby syndrome.”
Virginia Powel, a pediatric intensive care physician who examined Ella in Roanoke, also testified that Ella’s injuries were consistent with nonaccidental trauma, such as severe shaking, a blunt force impact to the head or a combination of both.
However, Tuck’s witnesses on Wednesday said there are alternative theories that explain Ella’s death. Ronald Uscinski, a neurosurgeon in the Washington, D.C., area, testified that he reviewed Ella’s medical records and discovered that Ella was born premature, with respiratory problems and a hole in her heart.
Uscinski said the existence of the phenomenon known as “shaken baby syndrome” has never been proven. The amount of force needed to shake an infant and cause such significant damage is in excess of what a human could exert, Uscinski said. And if a child was so violently shaken, the child’s neck would be damaged, which was not seen in Ella’s case.
Instead, Uscinski told jurors, his theory is that Ella had a pre-existing subdural hematoma that could have existed for quite some time. On March 1, 2011, her airway was compromised for whatever reason and her brain began to swell. He added that there was evidence Ella had been vomiting and that she may have choked on her vomit, interrupting her breathing.
Uscinski also pointed to the fact that there was no visible external injury on Ella’s head, which he said he would expect to find if there had been a blunt force impact.
John Daniel, a forensic pathologist in Richmond, testified Wednesday that while Suzuki’s findings could be correct, he would not have labeled Ella’s cause of death as abusive head trauma.
“There’s certainly at least one other plausible explanation,” said Daniel, who added that he examined Ella’s brain at the medical examiner’s office in Roanoke after the defense contacted him about the case.
Daniel, like Uscinski, said there is a “very reasonable likelihood” that Ella’s breathing was interrupted, depriving the brain of oxygen and causing the brain swelling. He also offered the possibility that Ella could have choked on her vomit.
On cross examination, county Commonwealth’s Attorney Bobby Lilly asked Daniel if they could agree that Ella had retinal hemorrhages, a subdural hematoma, brain swelling, six fractured ribs, bruising on the left side of her face and bruising on her chest and back. Daniel said that he was in agreement.
“We disagree on whether the injury caused the oxygen deprivation or the oxygen deprivation caused the injury,” Lilly said.
Abuse charge dropped
According to testimony, Ella lived in a home with her parents, Aaron and Karen Edwards, and her older brother who was a toddler at the time. About 3:30 a.m. March 1, 2011, Aaron Edwards made Ella a bottle and placed her in a play pen with pillows and a blanket in the living room, he testified Wednesday. Edwards said he went back to sleep in another room and woke up at 6:30 a.m. to go to his job as a tree cutter. He said he then noticed that Ella was unresponsive, woke his wife and called 911. Edwards was the only person who checked on Ella between 3:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., according to testimony.
Circuit Court Judge Colin Gibb ruled at the end of the day on Wednesday — outside the presence of the jury — to strike the child abuse and neglect charge.
The indictment for that charge did not include March 1, 2011, as an offense date but included an earlier time period. The charge was focused on Ella’s fractured ribs and bruising, according to discussions between the lawyers and Gibb while the jury was out of the courtroom. The rib fractures could have occurred up to three weeks prior to Ella’s hospitalization, according to testimony from medical professionals. Tuck argued that the prosecution had not presented evidence that Edwards injured Ella prior to March 1, 2011, or had knowledge of Ella’s injuries.
Tuck made a motion to strike both charges, but Gibb ruled that the prosecution had met its burden in regards to presenting evidence about the involuntary manslaughter charge.
Wife invokes the Fifth
Both Aaron and Karen Edwards took the stand on Wednesday, in addition to several of Aaron Edwards’ family members, who each said that Edwards had a reputation as a nonviolent man and a good father.
Karen Edwards invoked the Fifth Amendment when she was called as a witness. She is facing a charge of child abuse and neglect and is scheduled to have a two-day jury trial beginning on Aug. 28, according to online records. When asked if she was invoking the Fifth Amendment because she is charged with child abuse in relation to Ella, Karen Edwards answered “yes,” before her lawyer, Harvey Lutins, advised her to invoke the Fifth Amendment on that question, too. She was not asked any additional questions.
Later on Wednesday, a portion of Karen Edward’s testimony from a preliminary hearing in the case was read to jurors. According to what was read of the transcript, Karen Edwards wrote a letter to her husband in February 2011 stating that she was depressed and sometimes found it difficult to deal with the children.
When testifying, Aaron Edwards remained generally unemotional, as he has for much of the trial. Tuck asked him about his lack of emotion, and Edwards said it was how he was raised. But at one point, while identifying a photograph of himself holding Ella while she was hospitalized, his voice cracked and he appeared to be trying not to cry. He testified that he never abused, neglected or injured his daughter in any manner and cooperated fully with police, even after being arrested on March 15, 2011.
Tuck said Wednesday that he may call additional witnesses today. Lilly said he may also present some rebuttal evidence before the lawyers make their closing arguments and jury deliberations begin.
Weather JournalIcy mix moves in this Sunday AM