The only defense witness testifying on Daddy's behalf was...Daddy. That should tell you something.
Jury deliberates in case of Missoula man accused of killing 3-month-old son
By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian Posted: Friday, December 18, 2009 6:30 am
Jurors began deliberations Thursday in the trial of a man accused of killing his 3-month-old son, measuring a heap of medical evidence against a father's adamant denial that he caused the fatal injuries.
Robert J. Wilkes, 38, was charged with deliberate homicide in March after doctors determined that his infant son died of brain injuries caused by nonaccidental trauma they say almost certainly occurred under the father's care.
The trial began Monday in the 4th Judicial District Court of Missoula with Judge Ed McLean presiding.
A child abuse expert told jurors Thursday that baby Gabriel's injuries were on par with what a child might suffer in a three-story fall or a high-speed car crash, and the symptoms of severe brain damage would have been evident immediately.
That medical testimony is at odds with testimony that Gabriel behaved normally and fed from a bottle when Wilkes arrived to pick him up at a neighbor's apartment on the evening of Oct. 4, 2008. An hour later, Wilkes was back at the apartment holding a "limp, cold and unresponsive" infant, said Deputy Missoula County Attorney Suzy Boylan.
Given the extent of the brain injuries, experts say, Gabriel would have been unable to feed from the bottle if he had been injured while under the neighbor's care; the onset of symptoms would have occurred within a minute or so, not a full hour later.
"I would say that it is almost inconceivable that after sustaining such injuries he would have had the neurological wherewithal to feed effectively," said Dr. Rich Kaplan, a pediatrician from the University of Minnesota, who testified Thursday as an expert witness for the state.
Wilkes took the stand Thursday as the sole defense witness, and although he had no explanation for what kind of trauma caused Gabriel's brain injuries, he said the baby was not hurt under his supervision.
"It makes me angry that my son is dead. It makes me angry that I'm the one accused of his death," Wilkes said. "I don't know who did it. But I had no reason to get mad at my son. He was 3 months old."
Boylan was quick to point out that no direct evidence exists to prove that Wilkes shook Gabriel, or dealt some other kind of fatal injury - there are no eyewitnesses and no signed confession.
"But all other medical causes have been ruled out," she said. "The constellation of symptoms exhibited by Gabriel Wilkes on Oct. 4 were the result of an immediate injury, and injuries like these are almost always the result of a violent act."
Kaplan said Gabriel's medical history showed he was a "healthy, growing, thriving baby," and that some violent trauma caused his developing brain stem to shear. Kaplan said the term "shaken-baby syndrome" is too simplistic because it's impossible to say exactly what happened, but some "abrupt, back-and-forth acceleration and deceleration" must have occurred.
"We really don't know what person did what," he said. "But if I had to pick the most plausible diagnosis, it would be abusive head trauma."
Public Defender Scott Spencer told jurors that they cannot merely speculate about what happened. The evidence does not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilkes deliberately killed the child, he said, or that he did anything to cause the child's injuries
"There simply is no evidence to convince you beyond a reasonable doubt that this happened," Spencer continued. "Is it suspicious? Absolutely. Is it a tragedy? Absolutely. But (Wilkes) didn't do it."
If jurors do accept the medical evidence as fact, and determine that Gabriel suffered the fatal injuries under Wilkes' care, Spencer urged them to find his client guilty of negligent, rather than deliberate homicide.
"There's not one person who has walked into this courtroom and said ‘I know what happened,'" Spencer said. "Something happened. Somebody did something. But you have to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt."
Boylan called Spencer's line of argument unreasonable, and said a deliberate act caused serious brain damage, retinal hemmorrhaging and subdural hematomas to a 3-month-old infant.
"What the state is asking you to do is give Gabe some justice. The question is, ‘Do you believe his denials?' " Boylan asked. "The medical evidence says those denials just are not possible."
Jurors will continue their deliberations on Friday.