One Wrong Step

Offense:  Murder

The Allegation:  A couple got into a domestic argument that turned physical, to include the man choking the woman unconscious before taking the money in her purse and driving away.  The man called 9-1-1, claiming that she had attacked him, and he only choked her in self-defense.  Police responded to the residence and spoke with the woman, who had red marks on her neck, but she refused medical treatment.  Her demeanor and mental state appeared fidgety and agitated.  The following morning, at approximately 5:30am, an anonymous 9-1-1 call reported an unresponsive woman slumped over on a bench; it was the woman from the domestic violence incident, sitting on a bench in her neighbor’s front yard.  She was taken to the hospital, where she was found to have a burn in the shape of a clothing iron on her torso, and bleeding in her brain.  She died a few days later, and the conclusion was that the brain bleed was caused by blunt force trauma.  Her death was ruled a homicide, and our client was charged. 

Our Client:  Our client and the woman both had significant criminal histories, primarily involving substance abuse issues.  He denied burning her with a clothing iron, striking the woman in the head, or causing her death. 

His Version of the Story:  He claimed that she was high on methamphetamine when he came home from work that afternoon, and was acting very aggressively towards him.  He had taken a picture of her glaring at him while holding a large kitchen knife.  He stated that she started a fight, first by kicking his foot while he was seated in a recliner, after which he stood up, then by punching him in the face and knocking out one of his teeth.  He admitted he reacted angrily to her attack by putting his hand around her throat and squeezing until she passed out.  He took money from her purse which he had given her to buy groceries, but now believed she would only buy more drugs with it.  He left, and didn’t return until the following morning, when he saw her on the bench.  He called 9-1-1 anonymously because he was afraid of being accused of hurting her. 

Our Findings:  Our task was to determine the reliability of the information used to charge our client.  There were two other witnesses who observed the woman’s erratic and aggressive behavior earlier in the afternoon, including walking around with the kitchen knife.  Our client had injuries consistent with the story he told the police; his foot was badly bruised, and his front canine had been knocked out.  We compared the pictures and video police had recorded when they responded to the call about the fight, and then later when she was found unresponsive.  In the first set, the closet door was closed; in the second, the closet door was open and a skateboard was lying in the middle of the floor.  The clothing iron was found put away, with traces of her DNA on the heating plate.  None of the neighbors reported hearing screams.  Methamphetamine users have been known to harm themselves.  Finally, the medical report described the brain bleed, but failed to note bruising of the scalp in any particular place.  A brain bleed without a signs of external injury often indicates an aneurism.  Because prolonged use of methamphetamine can weaken blood vessels in the brain, users are susceptible to aneurisms.  Based on where she was found, a plausible argument could be made that she had either slipped on the skateboard, or had an aneurism, and suffering from disorientation and/or possibly seeking help, she wandered outside and ended up on the bench where she was found.  There was no evidence that our client ever returned to the house to commit an assault on the woman.  After being briefed on our report, the District Attorney declined to pursue charges.    


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