Longform

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."

Despite the technical nature of the information Norton must get across to the jury, she makes it understandable and even fascinating--one of the reasons she is a popular expert witness.

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Ann Zimmerman