After four weeks of testimony and two days of deliberations, a jury in Juneau, Alaska, on Monday declared 24-year-old David J. Paul guilty of manslaughter but innocent of second-degree murder in the 2010 death of his girlfriend’s 4-month-old daughter.
Like so many children in these cases, the infant Rian Jambi Orr had a complex medical history, including a skull malformation discovered at autopsy. The prosecution’s case rested heavily on a confession that didn’t match the medical facts, and the trial featured testimony about comments the teenage mother made during the child’s birth.
David J. Paul was not Rian’s biological father, but he was her mother’s boyfriend when the girl was born: He is listed as the father on her birth certificate and was described as a caring and gentle parent. He and Rian’s mother both say he was the one who got up with Rian early in the morning on August 9, 2010, and fed her a bottle—a few hours before her mother found her seizing and the couple rushed her to the hospital.
Rian had no signs of an impact injury: no bruises, no red marks, no skin swelling—and incidentally, no retinal hemorrhages—but she arrived at the hospital with subdural hematomas and progressive brain swelling. Radiology showed healing thigh and rib fractures. Paul was quickly barred from his daughter’s bedside.
Reporter Emily Russo Miller at the Juneau Empire has captured the tale in a series of compelling courtroom dispatches. In testimony on May 30, the detective in charge of the case said she had zeroed in on Paul as the perpetrator 20 minutes into their first conversation. On June 1, child-protection specialist Dr. Naomi Sugar explained that the healing fractures and bruises on Rian’s chest, even disregarding the recent brain injury, were enough to convince her the girl had been abused.
Paul insisted for a week that he had done nothing to hurt Rian. Three days after the girl’s death, however, police questioned him more closely, and he ultimately said he had accidentally dropped her on the bathroom floor the morning of her meltdown. According to the June 12 trial coverage, he added the statement a year later that he’d then made “one jerking motion” after picking her up.
The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp, acknowledged during closing arguments that Paul’s statements didn’t explain the injuries, but argued that his changing story hinted at a much darker truth. From the Empire coverage:
Paul’s statements to police do not “make perfect sense” in and of themselves, Kemp readily conceded. She said if the baby had truly been dropped from three feet on her head on the linoleum bathroom floor during her morning feeding on Aug. 9, there would have been external evidence of that, such as a bump, knot or fracture on the head, and, as the defense points out, none of the expert witnesses at trial asserted that the ‘one shake’ Paul admitted to could have caused the kind of fatal brain injuries Rian died from.
“There is more to what happened,” Kemp said. “And Rian’s not speaking for herself.”
Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland argued that Rian suffered from a chronic brain injury that merely became symptomatic that morning. Pediatric neuroradiologist Dr. Patrick Barnes testified that the abnormalities on Rian’s x-rays looked like a Vitamin D deficiency, commonly known as rickets, not child abuse:
One by one, Barnes went through images of Orr’s CT scans and skeletal X-rays pointing out characteristic signs of rickets for the jury: the thinning or softening of her skull, beading of the growth centers around her ribs called “rachitic rosary,” curved leg bones that aren’t straight as they should be and fuzzy growth centers in her arm and leg bones instead of a thin white line.
The full-bore defense line-up also included forensic pathologist Dr. Jan Leestma, who said that shaken baby syndrome “probably does not exist”; bioengineer Toby Hayes, PhD, who said Rian’s neck would have broken at shaking forces lower than those required to cause the bleeding inside her head; and psychologist Deborah Davis, who explained how the Reid Technique for police interrogation can elicit false confessions.
Remarkably, even the prosecution pathologist acknowledged that he had found an extra bone in Rian’s head at autopsy. The prosecution’s questioning did not raise the issue, according to the Empire coverage, but Hedland brought it out on cross-examination:
When [prosecutor] Kemp asked Harruff if he observed evidence of chronic hematoma or anything that would suggest a coagulation problem, Harruff said no. Under cross-examination, Harruff told Hedland that he observed a bone in the baby’s brain, which is not normal, but that he could not identify it microscopically. He agreed that bones form in the brain when they are trying to fix something, and would probably take weeks to form.
The defense also researched the child’s birth and pre-natal records. Although I’m uncomfortable with the implications for blaming the mother for a crime that never happened, Hedland was only doing his job, putting on a thorough defense, when he called in a midwife and doulah who testified that Jaki Orr had ignored their nutritional advice during pregnancy and had been “risked out” of their program for non-compliance. Doulah Shayna Rohwer was apparently present for the birth in a more mainstream medical facility:
… Jaki’s doula who was present during the baby’s birth testified that Jaki made statements during labor, such as, “This isn’t what I wanted.”
“She repeatedly said, ‘This isn’t what I wanted,’ ‘This isn’t good,’ ‘This isn’t right,’ and I knew (it was) about her baby, presumably not about the birth itself, which is sad,” Rohwer said.
Myself, I consider those reasonably mild statements from a woman in the midst of labor, but I was still shocked that the testimony was allowed in the courtroom. Then I realized that the trial time devoted to Paul’s confession made this testimony appropriate: We should give about as much credence to statements made during unmedicated childbirth as we give to statements made after three hours of the Reid Technique.
The trial also featured a judicial wrinkle: After the prosecution rested, Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg dismissed one of two second-degree murder charges against Paul, in response to a defense motion for acquittal. The Empire reported the judge’s reasoning:
“Murder two requires knowing that the conduct was substantially certain to cause death or serious physical injury, and as I said earlier, I don’t think anyone in this courtroom knows that shaking a baby is substantially certain to cause death or serious physical injury,” Pallenberg said. “I think we all know that it creates a risk of that. This requires much more than knowing there was a substantial risk. This requires knowing that it’s substantially certain.”
Although a finding of innocence on the murder charge, even with a manslaughter conviction, can seem like a victory, Hedland said he is disappointed and will appeal immediately. “I could have sat on my hands, and he shouldn’t have been convicted of murder,” he said. “My client is innocent.”
While the jury was deliberating, the Empire posted an interview with Paul’s mother, who is convinced of her son’s innocence. Some other articles from the series contain more details about the case, but because this blog is dedicated to the many victims of these tragic diagnoses, I am closing with this link to that story.
If you are not familiar with the debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome, please see the home page of this blog.