Defense deems wife’s death accidental
High-profile pathologist counters claim that husband had a hand
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-01-31
After analyzing evidence, an expert witness for the defense in the trial of Frederick Mueller opined this week that Leslie Mueller’s death was the result of an accident.
High-profile forensic pathologist Werner Spitz, who testified for the plaintiffs in O.J. Simpson’s wrongful death civil trial, was the first witness called by the defense on Tuesday. He was recognized as an expert witness and testified for most of the day.
Mueller, a businessman from San Angelo, Texas, is on trial for the first-degree murder of his first wife, Leslie Mueller, who drowned near their Lake City vacation home in May 2008. After weeks of calling witnesses to the stand, the prosecution rested its case late Monday.
Spitz has authored 96 medical papers, including 14 on drowning, and is also the author of the book “Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines to the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation.”
During questioning, attorney Andres Sanchez reiterated the defense’s theory that Leslie Mueller stumbled off a ledge, landed on her feet at the base of the cliff and skidded into Cottonwood Creek. After reviewing autopsy photos during his testimony, Spitz said that none of the bruises on Leslie Mueller’s forehead and the left side of her face were consistent with a struggle or assault.
“None of this is due to a struggle,” he said. “But what it is due to is a flat surface that is not only flat, but smooth.”
He went on to describe to the jury that the bruising “patterns” allow him to determine to a certain extent that the injuries on Leslie Mueller’s face came from falling on a flat surface, since the bruises she had incurred matched with the protuberances and features of her skull. And, hollow areas of her face, such as below the cheek bone, were not bruised, he noted.
Spitz also indicated that it was unlikely that Leslie Mueller sustained the injuries from having her head held underwater. He said he would expect more injuries if that were the case, and that it would prove difficult to hold her down long enough to result in drowning. A person would instinctually struggle, he said.
“It wasn’t natural. It was not a suicide. An accident? Yes. Homicide? No, I don’t believe it was a homicide,” Spitz told Sanchez when asked about the manner of Leslie Mueller’s death. “What was it in my opinion? An accident — that’s my opinion.”
Spitz also testified that, upon examining the autopsy X-ray of Leslie Mueller’s head and neck, he found an irregularity at the base of the skull — which was not found in the initial autopsy. Spits said that the irregularity could have come from falling from a significant height and landing on her feet.
“If she comes down on her feet, the skull is driven down toward the impact,” Spitz said. “It could have caused the damage on the skull.”
He also proposed that the skull injury could have been a hyper-extension, which encompasses a full chapter in his book. One of the features of hyper-extension, he explained, is that often the body is virtually uninjured, but the vital structures of the brain are traumatized.
Spitz said that hyper-extensions often occur when someone dives at an angle into a shallow pool, hitting their head on the bottom. Injury comes from hyper-extension of the skull, and often minimal damage is sustained on the forehead, he said.
Spitz said Leslie Mueller could also have sustained that injury when she stumbled into the creek.
“But I will never know if that (hyper-extension) did or did not happen because nobody looked,” he said.
Spitz was questioned whether the disturbance to Leslie Mueller’s skull that he identified in the X-ray would be consistent with someone having their head held underwater. He replied that he didn’t think it was possible.
Prosecuting attorney Matthew Durkin asked Spitz if Leslie Mueller would likely have sustained any injuries to her legs and feet, if she had fallen off a ledge and landed on her feet. Spitz responded that it depends and was argumentative during cross-examination, resulting in the expert witness being instructed twice by Judge J. Steven Patrick to answer the prosecution’s questions, not argue with them.
After responding nondefinitively to a number of questions, Spitz explained to Durkin, “The longer you are in this job, you learn that you don’t use the word ‘never.’”
During re-examination, defense attorney Sanchez questioned whether Spitz ever encountered eyewitness testimony that was inaccurate in other cases for which he testified.
“Yes, I do,” he responded.
Spitz confirmed to Durkin that he would be paid more than $54,000 for his testimony in Mueller’s case, significantly more than $5,000 he had been paid to testify in other cases.
After the prosecution rested Monday afternoon, defense attorneys motioned to have the trial thrown out. Roger Sagal, attorney for the defense, argued that the prosecution had shown “no affirmative evidence that supports a claim that she was forcibly drowned.” He also said that the prosecution had failed to show deliberation prior to the crime, an essential element of proving first-degree murder. After a night of deliberation, Judge Patrick dismissed the defense’s motion.
So far the jury has heard from nearly 30 witnesses from the prosecution and a handful from the defense. The five-week trial ends its fourth week today.
(Laura Anderson can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)