Day eight: Abshire defense blames vehicle for neck injury
"This is the kind of injury you get when you've been launched or projected. She's landed on her head."
So testified a forensic pathologist hired by the defense in Eric Abshire's first degree murder trial to offer an alternate theory in the injuries sustained by 27-year-old kindergarten teacher and 1997 Western Albemarle High School grad Justine Swartz Abshire on the night she died in what initially was reported to be a hit-and-run.
"My opinion is that she was standing at the time she was struck by a vehicle," said that pathologist, Dr. Jonathan L. Arden, a former New York City medical examiner who's been a paid legal consultant since 2003. Arden pointed to the fracture in Justine's femur as evidence of the vehicle involvement in her November 2006 death, and claimed none of her injuries appeared consistent with being run over while already prone.
Instead, he testified, her 113 external injuries and numerous additional internal injuries were likely sustained nearly simultaneously as a car struck her in the pelvis and leg region and sent her hurtling through the air. The broken bones and lacerated organs weren't the cause of her death, he asserted. While he agreed with the prosecution's assertion that a neck injury contributed to her death, he disagreed with the state's assessment of how she might have sustained it.
"I don't believe strangulation played any role in her death," said Arden. "The mechanism of her death is the cervical neck injury that caused a concussive injury to a primitive portion of her central nervous system, which is why she died rapidly." That, too, is why her injuries failed to bleed, Arden testified, although the total quantity of blood left in her body was never addressed, nor was the lack of embedded gravel or similar debris in any of her surface wounds.
On cross examination, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Moore focused on Arden's $400 an hour fee.
"How many hours did you put in on this case?" asked Moore. When Arden claimed ignorance of the amount he'd worked or the amount he'd be paid, Moore lasered in.
"Did you intentionally not bring the records so you can't tell the jury how much you've been paid?" he asked, before suggesting that between Arden's hourly fees and his $4,000 per day trial fee, he'd earn a minimum of $7,400 for efforts.
While downplaying strangulation, Arden was not asked and did not mention anything about the burst blood vessels in Justine's eye and lip, or the contusions on her tongue, all of which the prosecution's medical examiner cited as results of pressure being applied to the neck.
Other defense witnesses today sought to paint Eric and Justine as a loving couple, who, contrary to prosecution testimony, were looking forward to building a life and house together and taking a delayed honeymoon.
"Justine was always happy, smiling, laughing, always just a great person," said Jill Madison, who married Abshire's cousin Mark Madison one week after Justine and Abshire's May 28, 2006 wedding. The foursome were close, Madison testified, planning to build houses next door to each other and eagerly anticipating a tropical cruise at Christmastime.
Several other witnesses recalled a car that burned soon after Justine's death. The Dyke-based vehicle, which witnesses described as a 1992 or '94 Honda Civic, appeared to have been in an accident of some sort soon after Justine's death, and, shortly thereafter, it burned, an event that brought Greene County Sheriff's Department and a Virginia State Police trooper to investigate.
"There was a patch of hair, blondish," in the bumper, testified Charlottesville City Utilities worker Christopher Carver of the vehicle's damaged bumper. But while Abshire's defense attorney Charles "Buddy" Weber suggested investigators had failed to follow up on Carver's tip, on cross examination, Commonwealth's Attorney Diana Wheeler read from a transcript between Carver and the case's lead investigator, Virginia State Police Special Agent Mike Jones.
"You noticed a light colored hair, one-inch to one-half inch long that looked like a deer's hair?" Wheeler reminded him from the transcript.
The last two witnesses of the day sought to discredit prosecution witness Cecil Roebuck, who has testified that in his quest to find an old school bus to use in building a parade float, he inadvertently may have helped Abshire stage the hit and run the night of Justine's death.
Asked whether Roebuck had a reputation for honesty, witness Teresa Stanley, a UVA nurse who once worked with Roebuck said, "It was a poor reputation."
On cross examination, prosecutors pressed Stanley and a second witness, Roebuck's former parade float business partner, to admit they'd had personal or business problems with him.
The defense resumes its case Monday, October 24, and the question of whether Abshire will take the stand in his own defense remains a key question.