From Lee Harvey Oswald to Ashley Estell, Dallas pathologist Linda Norton serves as Doctor to the Dead
Head erect, shoulders squared, Dr. Linda Norton walks purposefully into a packed courtroom in Belton, Texas, to take her seat on the witness stand.
For the next hour and a half, Norton, a forensic pathologist, will lead the hushed courtroom on an exacting and graphic tour of the bruises and bloody brain wounds that led to the death of a two-month-old baby boy. The prosecution is attempting to prove that the baby's 25-year-old father, a Fort Hood soldier, battered the infant to death in a fit of rage.
The defense maintains the baby died from a respiratory illness that went undetected despite previous hospitalizations. The baby's internal head wounds were sustained accidentally, the defense says, when his father desperately shook the baby in an attempt to resuscitate him after he suddenly stopped breathing.
To undermine the defense's position and fortify its own, the prosecution hired Norton, a formidable expert witness who has, as often as not, worked for the defense. "Sometimes it's worth bringing Linda in just so the other side doesn't use her," confides Bell County Assistant District Attorney Lon Curtis.
The dead infant, Alexander Bohnet, was a fraternal twin who, with his sister, was born a month premature to Roland Bohnet and Kelly Anne Marie Maxwell, a topless dancer. The babies, as the defense has emphasized, had been in and out of a hospital emergency room with respiratory distress during the first few weeks of their lives. But an autopsy revealed that Alexander had five unhealed rib fractures. The breaks had not shown up on X-rays because the lack of calcium in infant bones makes fractures difficult to detect.
Norton is certain that these fractures were the cause of the pneumonia-like symptoms Alexander--and his sister, Sydney--had experienced.
At a briefing to prepare Norton, Curtis had advised her that Bohnet, who was alone with the baby for six hours before Alexander died, had already given rambling testimony for two and a half hours. The father claimed the baby's head injuries may have been caused by a toy box that fell from a department store shelf. "The defendant can talk for 45 minutes without coming up for air," Curtis told Norton.
"He's like me," she replied.
Curtis hired Norton to rebut a California forensic pathologist, hired by the defense, who testified that the blunt-force trauma could not have caused the baby's brain damage because there was no skull fracture. Measuring his words, the California doctor told the jury he believed the baby's head injuries were caused by shaking--which would jibe with the defense's explanation.
"What I need the most from you," Curtis told Norton, "is the blunt-trauma component, that this was an intentional death. After that it's window dressing."
"You lead, I'll follow," she replied, but even before Curtis' briefing, Norton had no doubt about exactly where she would go. The "shaken-baby syndrome"--the theory that an infant can suffer enough brain damage from being shaken to die--is one of a number of flawed theories used to defend child abusers. It's one of several theories that Norton has made a career of debunking.
On the stand, as Norton responds to Curtis' questioning, she looks directly at the jurors--making eye contact with each of the 12--building an emotional bond. Tacked to a bulletin board next to Norton, poster-sized enlargements of the autopsy pictures show the infant's massive fatal brain hemorrhage--a subdural hematoma. Curtis asks her whether shaking could have inflicted such extensive damage.
Norton launches into her well-rehearsed explanation of how the shaken-baby theory began gaining ground in medical and legal circles in the 1970s, even though the scientific paper that first identified and popularized the syndrome sprung from several false premises.
One of these premises, Norton explains, is that if there are no bruises or fractures on a baby's scalp, a blow could not have caused the brain damage. Directly refuting the testimony of the earlier expert witness, Norton says that the flesh of the scalp is so thick that light does not penetrate it; therefore bruises can't be detected with a surface examination. Moreover, she says, infants' skulls are so resilient that in half the cases studied, they remained intact, even when the brain was severely damaged.
"Could this child have been shaken to death?" Curtis asks again.
"It is not possible," Norton replies. "We have studies dating from the 1960s on primates, and on models in the late 1980s, that prove that the type of force needed to create a diffuse brain injury of this magnitude by shaking cannot be generated by humans. They would break the baby's neck first."
Then there's Norton's flair for the dramatic.
Taking her cues from Curtis, who hands her a large, plastic baby doll, she holds the doll by its neck, which is apparently what the father had done, as evidenced by the large bruise found on the baby's neck, extending to its chin.
"The type of injury this baby suffered," Norton says, "has a decelerating force that is absorbed by the brain--that is when the head suddenly comes to rest, but the brain continues to move forward. It's the type of head trauma you see in a child who has fallen from a two-story building or in a car accident where the child is ejected, or in a fit of temper or rage a parent slams a child down as hard as they can or throws a child against the wall."
With that, Norton lifts the doll over her head and slams it against the wall. Thwack!
Linda Norton is sitting in her office on the 10th floor of a gleaming Central Expressway high-rise in Dallas. A massive desk covered with files for cases in which she's booked for the next three months dominates the room. Norton bills at $250 an hour for reviewing cases and $2,000 a day for testifying.
Opinionated and outspoken, Norton, 50, is frequently compared by her admirers to Kay Scarpetta, the fictitious forensic-pathologist protagonist in a series of murder mysteries. It's obvious that Norton, who admits she has read all of author Patricia Cornwell's books, is flattered. She praises the books' scientific accuracy. But Norton protests that she neither shares, nor approves of, Scarpetta's chain-smoking or the character's affairs with married men.
For the past 20 years, Linda Norton has been intimately involved in the science of violent death, particularly the unexpected, often unexplained, deaths of children. As a forensic pathologist, she is part physician, part sleuth.
"The easiest way to describe what I do is that I'm a medical detective," Norton says. "I tell you all about what happened to you too late to save you. But, hopefully, what I can do with that information is to bring someone to justice or prevent it from happening again."
With 10,000 autopsies and hundreds of trials to her credit, Norton has become known nationwide as a child advocate who uses her work to expose pseudo-scientific studies that have allowed too many child murderers to go free, and too much child abuse to be buried without proper investigation.
Norton received a measure of fame this year from newspapers around the country and magazines including People and New York when her 15-year campaign to expose a flawed theory for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome eventually led to the arrest, prosecution, and ultimate murder conviction of a New York woman whose five babies had ostensibly died from SIDS 25 years ago.
Although she obviously loves the nationwide attention her career has brought, mucking around in the more gruesome side of life has forced Norton to develop coping mechanisms. "If I let every case get to me, I would go stark raving mad," Norton says. "You build an emotional wall between you and the cases. And you hope the wall holds up."
During her work for the defense on one recent case--the torture and murder of Lisa Rene, a 16-year-old Arlington girl who was kidnapped and murdered last year--the wall crumbled. For the first time in many years, Norton couldn't sleep.
"It was an absolutely hideous case," she says. "It would be hard to describe the amount of emotional suffering this girl--a complete innocent--must have gone through. These five genetic aberrations--I can't even call them animals because I have an animal who wouldn't hurt a fly--had her from Saturday night to early Monday morning. They took turns raping her. They bashed her head in with a shovel and buried her alive. They poured gasoline on her to keep the animals from digging up the body. Wouldn't that give you nightmares?"
Norton came close to refusing to review the case for one of the defendants' lawyers. "But everyone deserves a fair trial," she says. "Someone has to take an objective look at the forensic evidence and tell the defense where they stand. In this case, like most of the ones I do for the defense, I wound up telling the attorney how bad off he was. But at least no one can accuse the attorney of not adequately representing him. They overturn verdicts on stuff like that.
"I played a small role in helping the system function the way it should--if we had an ideal world," she says.
One case in which Norton did testify for the defense was the highly publicized murder trial of Michael Blair, who was convicted of murdering seven-year-old Ashley Estell of Plano. Her findings surprised even her. "I figured I would say to the defense, 'Sorry, it sucks to be you. Let me tell you how bad your case is,'" she remembers.
To her surprise--and dismay--she found evidence that could give a jury reasonable doubt that Michael Blair, who was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death, was innocent.
"Michael Blair is a scumbag," Norton says. "He's just not the scumbag who killed Ashley Estell."
Norton says she did not look forward to testifying in such a high-profile, emotionally charged case where overwhelming public sentiment held that Blair was guilty. "I had a choice whether to feel scummy, or really scummy," she says.
Norton bases her opinion on a mixture of forensic science and gut reactions. "Before they cleaned him up for court, he was so creepy looking, if he had shown up at the Plano park, he would have stood out like an anchovy on angel-food cake."
She ticks off her other reasons for believing in Blair's innocence: Based on his alibi witnesses--his roommates who were with him all but two hours the afternoon Ashley was abducted--Blair did not have enough time to commit the murder, Norton says. According to Norton's own studies and calculations of the rate of decomposition of the corpse, the person who murdered Ashley did not dump the body until early morning, which means he or she would have had to keep the body somewhere at room temperature, or her body would have been more decomposed than it was.
But the jury wasn't swayed by her testimony. "What the jury convicted him on--hair and fiber samples--was very tenuous. They are not good forensic evidence," she says.
Norton says she doesn't lose sleep over Blair's conviction because, having reviewed his criminal record, she believes he had committed other heinous crimes for which he was never prosecuted. What does trouble her is her belief that the real killer is still out there.
But Norton reserves her bitterest enmity not for the murderers, but for those who would manipulate the justice system. She does not hide her contempt for former West Texas pathologist Ralph Erdmann, who botched numerous autopsies and frequently lied about his findings to help prosecutors in Lubbock--and throughout West Texas--obtain convictions.
Erdmann, who worked on a contract basis for counties without medical examiners, pleaded no contest in 1993 to seven felony charges of falsifying autopsies and surrendered his medical license.
Norton got involved in several of the cases when Erdmann's wrongdoing came to light and defendants began filing for retrials. She recalls the case of a man named Zane Hand, who was convicted of battering and murdering a young child he was baby-sitting. "The police decided Hand had done it, because the child had a seizure when he was there," she says. "But an autopsy showed extensive prior head injuries, evidence that the abuse had obviously been going on a long time.
"Ralph [Erdmann] testified in a court of law that the child, who was in the hospital for 53 hours before she died, had sustained the injuries on her body between 51 and 55 hours before death. He testified he knew this medically from the color of the bruises. No forensic pathologist can age a bruise with any exactitude.
"A jury is used to watching 'Quincy,' so what do they know?" Norton says. "Hand is a free man today, but he suffered miserably in prison.
"These are the cases," she says, "that make you want to throw up."
Linda Norton never planned on having a parade of corpses as patients. "I always intended to be a live doctor, a great healer...of the living," Norton says. "But I couldn't stand the patients. I either got too attached and couldn't give them bad news. Or, on the other hand, they would be non-compliant, refusing to follow directions, and I got furious with them."
Norton was a resident at Duke University Medical School in North Carolina when the turning point in her life came. The head of the hematology department allowed her to work up a new patient.
After taking the patient's history, and administering a battery of tests, Norton concluded the patient--a middle-aged woman--had a very rare form of leukemia, an exciting moment from an academic standpoint. Then Norton went to tell the doctor, who she assumed would give the heartbreaking news to the woman's family. He was nowhere to be found.
Looking back, Norton thinks the doctor purposely disappeared to see if Norton could handle the emotional side of doctoring. "When I couldn't find the doctor, I had to break the news to the family," she remembers. "By the time I was done, they were comforting me. I was crying harder than anyone else. One of the sons was patting me on the back, saying 'Doctor, we know it wasn't your fault.'
"That's the day I decided to definitely go into pathology. I needed a layer of insulation between me and the patient."
The last place Norton thought pathology would lead her was the morgue. "I thought the study of the origin and course of forensic pathology was gross," she remembers.
But when the time came for Norton to apply for fellowships, practical matters intervened. Norton, who had married when she was a medical student, had had two daughters by the time she was done with her residency. By the time she neared the end of her training, she and her husband had separated, and she had found herself having trouble paying bills. She heard from another resident about fellowships in forensic pathology in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Norton told him how distasteful she thought forensic work was, what with all those burned and mutilated bodies. Then he mentioned that the fellowship paid $20,000 a year. "I figured you could do anything for a year, just to keep my daughters and me afloat," she says.
Her fellowship started July 1, 1974. On July 4, she examined her first "crispy critter"--burned body. On July 7, she did an autopsy on her first "Maggoty Ann," a woman, shot to death in a cabin, whose body was not discovered for two weeks. "I cut a little, gagged a little," she says.
In September, she was scheduled for her first day off in two months. But before she could leave, a plane crashed. There were 69 dead on the scene. Norton had a date that night and told the man she would probably be a little late. She got home four days later.
Despite the grueling hours and the often gruesome nature of the work, Norton was hooked. "This is absolutely where I belong," she says. "Of all the medical specialties, it's the most like medical detective work. A guardian angel knew it. But she had to give me a kick, a hefty, healthy kick. It was divine intervention. I believe that there is something guiding us, and you need to allow it to instead of fighting for control so much."
Norton finished her fellowship not only dedicated to forensic pathology, but with an expertise in child-abuse cases. The staff pathologists, for the most part, found them unpleasant and had passed the cases on to her.
The Dallas Institute of Forensic Science, which had a reputation for having one of the best medical-examiner's offices, headed by Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Petty, was Norton's next post. She worked there from 1976 to 1981, when she left for a better-paying, less time-demanding job in Alabama--an enticing proposition for a single mother.
But before she left, she found herself at the center of an international case--the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy. A British writer, Michael Eddowes, had published The Oswald File, alleging that a look-alike Soviet agent had taken Oswald's identity after his defection, then returned to the United States to assassinate Kennedy. The writer based his allegation on discrepancies between Oswald's Marine Corps medical records and his autopsy.
The writer sued the medical examiner and the district attorney's office in Tarrant County, where Oswald is buried, to force an exhumation to verify the body's identity. The writer eventually lost the suit and subsequent appeals. But a jurisdictional battle erupted between the Tarrant and Dallas county M.E.s.
Finally, with the consent of Oswald's wife, Marina Oswald Porter, the exhumation was set for Oct. 4, 1981.
Because they had met her on a previous case, the writer's lawyers chose Norton to be the chief forensic pathologist. "I was the only person who hadn't been sued, and I had the records," Norton says. Still the choice frayed her relationship with her boss, Charles Petty, whom she considered to be her mentor. Norton won't discuss it, except to confirm that relations with Petty were strained. Petty did not return phone calls from the Observer.
The exhumation turned into an international media circus. Norton remembers with satisfaction how the reporters were handled during the exhumation. "As the hearse that held Oswald's coffin headed from Fort Worth to Dallas," she says, "the media assumed it was going to the Dallas County M.E.'s office next to Parkland Hospital. More than 300 media representatives went to the M.E.'s office.
"They surrounded it like Santa Ana's troops at the Alamo," she says with a grin. "But we were at Baylor."
The results of the autopsy proved that the body was indeed Oswald. But Norton says she never expected otherwise. "If I thought for a minute that we would find another body, or no body, I wouldn't have taken the assignment," she says. "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in congressional hearings. It's hard to make a living."
Despite the excitement and national recognition, by the early 1980s Linda Norton was burning out. Her tenure in Alabama was short-lived and uncomfortable, primarily, she says, because she was "not a proper Southern woman."
Norton recalls testifying before the state legislature on a medical-examiners bill. "They were all white, male politicians," she says. "I tried four or five times to finish a sentence. They would interrupt me or tell a joke." She finishes the anecdote with idosyncratic melodramatic flair: "I had two choices. I could fight the system or leave. I was only one person and I could do only so much."
She spent the next year and a half at the Bexar County M.E.'s office in San Antonio, before deciding to move back to Dallas in 1983 and strike out on her own. Her friend and colleague, William Anderson, a medical examiner in Orlando and the person who convinced Norton to try forensic pathology, calls her a pioneer in the area of private forensic consulting.
"She helped launch a field that was very important," says Anderson, "because the government, the place you normally find forensic pathologists, are horrible managers of most things, especially something as complicated as a death investigation."
By the time Norton set up her consulting business, she had become known as something of a crusader against child abuse. "You do enough cases, then someone starts asking you to lecture, write a chapter in a book," she says. "My mission was to help educate front-line people, caseworkers, police, pediatric emergency-room workers to become aware how to differentiate between child abuse and general accidental death."
She also educated prosecutors, who were, until the last decade and a half, reluctant to prosecute child-abuse cases because they are, more often than not, circumstantial.
In just three years, Norton's private practice was on sure footing and her reputation was spreading. In 1986, a young Syracuse, New York, assistant district attorney named Bill Fitzpatrick called her in to testify against a man on trial for the murder of his three daughters, who had all died mysteriously between the ages of three and 14 months. The man collected $50,000 in insurance claims on the children. The diagnoses had been SIDS.
Norton warned Fitzpatrick that to combat the SIDS defense, they would have to debunk a flawed, yet prevalent explanation of the syndrome. Ironically, the researcher who had developed the theory, Dr. Alfred Steinschneider, had lived in Syracuse and had practiced at the State University Hospital of the Upstate Medical Center.
Offhandedly, Norton told Fitzpatrick, "If you think your case is bad, there's a worse serial killer right in your own backyard."
She explained that in 1972, Steinschneider had theorized in the prestigious journal Pediatrics that SIDS was caused by sleep apnea--a prolonged cessation of breathing--which he linked to heredity. He based his study on five siblings he had in his care. Two of them, referred to only as M. H. and N. H., a brother and sister, had died within two months after being released from the hospital into their mother's care. The paper noted that the H. family had three previous children die suddenly, one of whom was just over two years old.
Ever since Norton read Steinschneider's milestone paper in the late 1970s, it had become a fixation. Reading over Steinschneider's observations, she suspected homicide, not SIDS, had been the cause of these babies' deaths. Norton had no qualms about saying so, especially as the paper became widely embraced as medical gospel. She railed against the paper in lectures to physicians and prosecutors every chance she got.
Norton found several things about the H. cases suspicious. From the research she had read, no genetic component had been linked to SIDS. "The likelihood of having a second child die of SIDS in one family is no greater than anyone else's," she says. "It strikes quite randomly. The probability of having five cases in one family is greater than the national debt."
She also found it highly suspicious that all five children died in the sole care of their mother.
And Norton was dubious about the basic science--or lack of it--in Steinschneider's paper. "If you want to scientifically study sleep apnea as the mechanism that triggers SIDS, you have to prospectively study thousands of infants, monitor them through the first year of their life. Then go back and see if there are any differences in the apnea patterns between the ones that died and the ones that didn't. It would be cost prohibitive."
Norton shared her outrage with Fitzpatrick, who requested a copy of the journal article. "The grotesqueness of Steinschneider's article was apparent, even to me," he says. "This was a case of infanticide."
Fitzpatrick vowed to look into the case. But he was having problems with his boss and he left the prosecutor's office shortly thereafter. "But I never forgot the article, or Linda's comments," Fitzpatrick says.
In 1992, he became the DA for Onondaga County, where Syracuse is located. With only initials, and the year of death to go on, Fitzpatrick began searching for the H. family's death certificates and hand prints until he found the ones that matched. Then he requested the medical records from the hospital where Steinschneider had done his research.
Finally, Fitzpatrick located Waneta Hoyt, the bereaved mother, a few counties away. The state police brought her in for questioning on the deaths of her children, which had occurred more than 20 years ago. After an hour and a half, she broke down and confessed in great detail to smothering each one because she could not tolerate their crying. Last May, a jury found Waneta Hoyt, a sickly, 49-year-old woman, guilty of second-degree murder in the deaths of all five children. In September, she was sentenced to 75 years in prison.
Though she feels a certain satisfaction with Hoyt's conviction, Norton still rails against the harm she believes Steinschneider's research continues to cause.
Steinschneider's theory that there may be a genetic link to SIDS led to the development, at his behest, of home apnea monitors. With approximately 6,000 SIDS deaths a year in this country, there was a huge market of frightened parents who thought they could save their babies. Healthdyne, the Atlanta company that markets the monitors grew to a $90 million concern in 1988, according to New York Magazine. The company's founder used profits to start the American SIDS Institute and brought Steinschneider down to head it up.
"Ninety-nine percent of the monitoring being done is inappropriate," Norton contends. "If I put you on the monitor, you would set it off, because everyone has episodes of sleep apnea. After a while, you would come to believe you were defective. If apnea monitors worked, we would have had a marked decrease in incidence of SIDS, which we have not. The number of children killed who didn't need to because of this thing, and the number of families traumatized by the apnea monitor during the first year of their child's life, far outweigh any benefits the monitors may have, which are dubious at best."
Phipps Cohe, spokesman for the National SIDS Alliance in Maryland, says Steinschneider's sleep-apnea theory is just one of many theories concerning SIDS "that did not pan out over time. But that doesn't mean it was bad science."
Though no one is certain why some babies die sudden, unexpected deaths, Norton believes that the brains of certain babies have difficulty recognizing and responding to the "air hunger" that occurs when carbon-dioxide levels rise because of smothering due to the babies being placed face down on soft surfaces, or even to mucous-blocked nasal passages.
Studies in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, in which babies were placed on their backs or sides, saw a reduction in SIDS of as much as 50 percent in some countries. At the same time, there was no rise in aspiration--which directly contradicts the belief of American doctors who advise parents that babies should sleep on their stomachs.
"That information has been available in this country for years. It's been actively repressed in this country by the American SIDS Institute," Norton contends. "Steinschneider still won't recommend that sleeping position."
While the SIDS Alliance and the American Academy of Pediatrics have strongly advocated since 1992 that babies be put on the their backs, the American SIDS Institute in Atlanta, which Steinschneider heads, does caution against it. In a press release from the American SIDS Institute last year, Steinschneider and other doctors stated that there was no clear evidence that the decrease in SIDS in these European studies was due to the changed sleeping position. The Institute has embarked on a multi-clinic U.S.study to investigate sleep positions in babies.
Dr. Steinschneider did not return repeated calls, but issued the following statement through his assistant:"Sleep position is an honest controversy, as honest as any other controversy in medical research. It is through these controversies that solutions to medical problems are found."
When the Belton trial adjourns for the day, Norton flees the courtroom, hunting for a place to take off her panty hose. Fearing the effect on a wayward juror of seeing the prosecution's expert witness wrestling with her panty hose in the rest room, she heads to a convenience store, where she changes into sweat pants. She rewards herself with a bag of pork rinds.
The next day, the jury takes less than an hour to find Randall Bohnet guilty of murder in the death of his infant son. He gets an automatic life sentence.
But Norton's mood is less than celebratory. "Justice is extremely capricious," she says. "I've seen it work at its best and most dismal. I do the best I can on a day-to-day basis. I decided long ago that is all I can do.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Can You Believe Somebody Is Trying to Solve Mentally Ill Homelessness?
Fri., Dec. 4, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 4, 8:00pm
Sat., Dec. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Dec. 5, 12:30pm
- 5 Things You Should Know About Dallas' Pension Crisis
- City Plan Commissioner Abtahi Kept Off Virgin America Flight Home