Shocking: How Faulty Science Lands Innocent People Behind Bars as Accused Child Murderers
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The hearing lasted nearly twice as long as the original trial. This time, seven doctors testified -- for free -- on Lopez's behalf.
Kirkwood also had the chance to question Joni McClain, the forensic pathologist who ruled Isis Vas' death a homicide. McClain stood by her conclusion that Isis was killed by violence, not disease.
But she acknowledged that she'd paid little attention to Isis' blood-clotting tests and had only a vague understanding of their possible significance. "Did you look at these lab tests before reaching your conclusions?" Kirkwood asked. "I don't think I did beforehand because it was such a clear case of blunt force injury," McClain replied.
Kirkwood read through the results of five tests, starting with the PT and PTT, which measure blood coagulation in seconds.
McClain admitted the tests went beyond her expertise as they can only be run on the living. "I don't get into a PT, PTT. It's a useless test after someone's dead," the doctor said.
Four other doctors testified for the state, saying Isis had died from blunt-force injuries, not a bleeding disorder. "This is a pattern of injury that we see with trauma," said Randell Alexander, a pediatrician who heads the child abuse division at the University of Florida's College of Medicine, in Jacksonville. "This is not a bleeding death."
McClain also argued that it was possible for head injuries to cause the type of clotting problems Isis had suffered.
In an interview, Laposata agreed head trauma can have that effect but said Isis' lab results were too abnormal to have resulted from an attack that allegedly occurred about an hour before her hospitalization.
It would be nearly a year before Potter County Judge Dick Alcala issued his opinion on the case. In August 2010, Alcala made a recommendation to the state's highest criminal court that Lopez's conviction should be overturned. He found that Lopez's original attorneys had failed to "fully investigate the medical issues of whether a sexual assault had occurred" and "the cause of death of the child." If they had investigated properly, Alcala wrote, the jury might not have convicted Lopez.
The judge rejected Lopez's claim of innocence, which would have required a conclusion that "no reasonable juror would have convicted him" -- a high legal standard.
The case is now in the hands of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. It has the power to throw out Lopez's conviction and free him.
Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims continues to fight Lopez's appeal. In an interview, Sims said he could not discuss the case in detail because it is still ongoing. (He also said he had discouraged state witnesses, including the medical examiner, from speaking with us.) Sims said he thought Lopez had received a fair trial.
"The jury found him guilty," he said. "And we're defending that conviction."
There is no timetable for the appeals court's decision. Even if it overturns Lopez's conviction, he could remain tangled up in the criminal justice system for years. Sims could refile charges and try him a second time.
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The United States is not the only country in which forensic pathologists have had difficulty investigating child deaths. Canada was rocked by a scandal that affected at least 20 criminal cases, sending officials there on a search for systemic solutions to prevent future miscarriages of justice.
The controversy centered on the work of Dr. Charles Smith, once one of Canada's leading forensic pathologists. Based at a children's hospital in Toronto, Smith specialized in performing autopsies in grisly child deaths and, over a span of 24 years, he testified regularly for prosecutors.