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Experts disagree on what caused Laster's deadly head injuries
Nov 21, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer
Expert witnesses in a murder trial both said bleeding inside a Shoshoni man's skull killed him, but they disagreed about what caused the hemorrhage.
On trial is Shey Bruce, 45, also of Shoshoni who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Charles Darrell Laster, 65. Prosecutors say Bruce struck Laster with a beer bottle the night of May 14, and Laster's wife Lavena found him dead the next morning.
Forensic pathologist James Wilkerson, of Loveland, Colo., testified in Lander District Court Nov. 20.
He said bleeding on the brain, called a subdural hematoma, killed Laster. As blood collects inside the skull it pushes the brain onto the brain stem, which controls the heart and lungs, Wilkerson said.
As the pressure builds, the vital functions cease, and the person dies.
Wilkerson said the trauma causing the subdural hematoma likely came from blows from a beer bottle. Someone holding a beer bottle upright and using the bottom as a hammer to strike down could have caused injuries found on the front and left side of Laster's head, Wilkerson said.
"You may hit him first while he's looking at you and he may turn away and you may hit him in other places," Wilkerson said.
The idea that the murder weapon was a beer bottle came from a report from the Fremont County Coroner's Office, Wilkerson said.
Daniel Spitz, a forensic pathologist from Michigan, thought the round bottom of a beer bottle would have left a distinct pattern he did not see in Laster's injuries.
"There were not semicircular or curved injuries," Spitz said in court Nov. 21. "Nothing consistent with that pattern if (a beer bottle) had been used in that hammer fashion."
Spitz agreed that a subdural hematoma caused Laster's death, however.
Since Bruce's trial started Nov. 18, his public defenders have suggested Laster could simply have fallen and hit his head.
A fall would only cause an injury on one side of the head, not on two sides as in Laster's case, Wilkerson said.
Spitz thought a fall was possible, especially in the case of heavy drinkers like Laster.
"I see those quite frequently," he said. "Alcoholics fall and don't have reflexes to protect themselves."
During his analysis, Spitz saw 11 or 12 distinct bruises on Laster's scalp, but said they could be hours or days old. It was not possible to identify which one caused the subdural hematoma, he said.
Wilkerson pointed to a bruise behind Laster's left ear as the lethal injury. He performed the autopsy and used photos from the procedure to illustrate his conclusion.
Deputy county attorney Pat LeBrun projected a photo of the top of Laster's head with the scalp pushed back and skull cut away. Using a laser pointer, Wilkerson showed the jury the subdural hematoma, a large pool of blood covering the bottom right quarter of Laster's brain.
He then pointed out the bruise on a photo of the left side of Laster's head and showed how there was no bruise evident in a photo of the right side.
As an object strikes one side of the head, the brain flattens slightly against that same side just as a baseball gets deformed when struck by a bat, Wilkerson said.
The skull is accelerating away from the blow, but the brain does not move as fast at first so it bumps against the side that was struck.
As it moves towards the side of the blow, it pulls away from the opposite side of the skull, and some small veins can break, Wilkerson said. Those veins run from the brain into the skull, and they can rupture as stretched.
As the experts disagree, the jury will have to decide which they believe more. Both men, however, have similar credentials.
Both have medical doctorates and went through five additional years of training to become medical pathologists. They each based examinations at that point to become licensed pathologists, doctors who study disease.
Each man then pursued a further year of education in forensic pathology and passed another test to become licensed in that field. Now, they both investigate deaths.
Wilkerson has been practicing forensic pathology since 1996 and has a license to do so in Colorado and Wyoming. He and his associates from three offices in Colorado perform autopsies for several counties in that state and Wyoming, including Fremont County.
Spitz worked as a forensic pathologist and medical examiner in Florida for several years. For the past nine years, he has been the chief medical examiner for two counties near Detroit and teaches pathology at a medical school.
He reviewed all of the reports and photos from the autopsy Wilkerson performed and studied witness statements and photographs of the scene of Laster's death.
Bruce also is charged with domestic violence for allegedly striking Lavena Laster when he attacked her husband as well.
Prosecutors finished their case the afternoon of Nov. 20, and defense attorneys are expected to wrap up theirs by the end of the day Nov. 21. Closing arguments could take place by the end of the day Nov. 21, after which the jury would begin deliberation.