Did the babysitter kill the child in her care that August morning in 1992, or did 5-month-old Ryan Baurley slip away due to sudden infant death syndrome, as experts initially ruled?
That question kept the prosecution and defense in the murder trial of Melissa Haskell, 38, of Bridgeport, occupied Wednesday during the third day of testimony in Montgomery County Court.
Three expert witnesses — a forensic toxicologist, a forensic pathologist, and a neonatologist — all took the stand for the commonwealth, saying the infant did not die without an "intervenor."
The child's blood was drawn during an autopsy Aug. 27, 1992. In tests done four days apart in September 1992, the child's blood alcohol level was 0.03 and 0.04 percent, the toxicologist testified.
Calculations based on the 20-year-old test data showed that "at least some of this alcohol was there prior to his death,"
But in science things are messy
, acknowledged Robert Middleberg, laboratory director of National Medical Services in Willow Grove, which did the testing.
"I'd like to tell you that when you die, it's a beautiful thing, but it is not like on TV. Toxicology samples can be contaminated," he said.
In addition, he testified, the blood sample in a special red-topped tube did not contain preservatives. Further, records were not kept on how warm it became as it was moved from autopsy room to lab, and fermentation, which produces alcohol after death, could have set in.
"Can you exclude postmortem production as the source of the blood alcohol found in Ryan Baurley?"
defense counsel Frank Genovese pressed.
"No," replied Middleberg.
While sudden infant death syndrome, Hofman testified, is a term used when nothing will explain why an apparently healthy infant dies, there were signs pointing to the cause for the child's death
Hofman said the baby's liver, kidneys, brain, and voice box were enlarged, and a frothy fluid was coming up out of his lungs. That — and the high blood-alcohol levels — pointed to suffocation
, he said, as the cause of death.
On cross examination, Genovese tried to undercut Hofman's opinion by implying that it was unduly influenced by Haskell's statement about smothering "that baby."
"You relied at least in part on the statement of Melissa Haskell, didn't you?" Genovese said.
"That — and the alcohol,"
Alan Spitzer, a neonatologist now working in Florida, said sudden infant death syndrome is most likely to happen at night; Ryan died in the morning.
In cases of sudden infant death syndrome, the baby simply stops breathing and the nervous system doesn't object.
Ryan's death was much more violent, he testified.
"It's very different from when the baby is struggling to breathe. It can't get fresh air in and you begin to go through the changes mentioned in the autopsy
," Spitzer said.