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MORTAL EVIDENCE The Forensics Behind Nine Shocking Cases
By CYRIL WECHT GREG SAITZ MARK CURRIDEN
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2003 Cyril Wecht, Greg Saitz, and Mark Curriden
All right reserved.
Chapter One TEENAGE BABY KILLERS?
The Truth behind the Death of Baby Boy Grossberg
On November 12, 1996, Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson were just two anonymous college freshmen, two teenagers with promising futures from upper-middle-class homes in northern New Jersey. Eighteen-year-old Grossberg, in her first semester at the University of Delaware, was a pretty brunette who liked art. Peterson, her boyfriend since high school, was handsome and athletic and attending Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. But less than a week later, they were the talk of the nation, and much of the world-branded as heartless baby killers. They also were the subjects of an aggressive team of prosecutors seeking a murder conviction and a death sentence.
Eventually, what happened in room 220 of the Comfort Inn in Newark, Delaware, was debated not only by those involved in the criminal case, but also by newspaper columnists, television talk- show hosts, and millions of everyday citizens. Were Grossberg and Peterson two unfeeling animals who, after delivering their infant sonin the hotel, viciously murdered him and tossed his tiny body into a nearby Dumpster? Or were they scared and confused young people who panicked after Grossberg gave birth to a blue and seemingly lifeless baby?
The questions touched a nerve with so many people because it was easy for them to imagine Grossberg and Peterson as their daughter, their son, their neighbors, or maybe even themselves. Grossberg grew up in Wyckoff and Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, two leafy and affluent neighborhoods in the northeast corner of the state. Her parents, Alan and Sonye, owned a furniture business and worked hard to achieve their success. Peterson spent much of his youth on Long Island before moving to Wyckoff to live with his mother, Barbara Zuchowski, and stepfather, John, who together ran a video wholesale company. The two teenagers met at Ramapo High School, where Peterson was the soccer cocaptain, and they started dating in their sophomore year. They continued to see each other during their first semester of college, which was cut short by their arrests.
Almost immediately, a debate erupted over whether authorities should pursue premeditated, first-degree murder charges against Amy and Brian. But there also was a less well-known debate over the medical issues. Once I consulted with Grossberg's defense team and had a chance to review the available evidence in the case, I was shocked on two levels. One was the single-minded intensity with which authorities pursued their case. The other was the pathological evidence that clearly indicated to me, and several other medical experts, that the baby either was stillborn or died shortly after birth; he had severe congenital problems that made his survival impossible.
Initially, I learned of the case through the media. I read the New York Times every day, and there was a story in its November 18, 1996, edition. Two days earlier, on Saturday, authorities issued first-degree murder warrants for Grossberg and Peterson. Investigators became involved the evening of November 12, after Grossberg suffered seizures and began bleeding on campus and was rushed to the hospital. Medical personnel discovered the undelivered placenta and diagnosed Grossberg as suffering from eclampsia, a serious illness brought on by childbirth that affects not only the mother, but also the baby. However, the baby was nowhere to be found, and hospital workers contacted police. Officers then went to speak with Peterson, who told them he and Grossberg had "gotten rid of the baby." A search dog found the baby's body in the Dumpster about twenty-four hours after Peterson had put it there.
The Times story quoted from an autopsy report, which determined the infant's cause of death to be "multiple fractures (linear and depressed) with injury to the brain due to blunt force head trauma and shaking." The article also quoted a deputy attorney general saying prosecutors would seek the death penalty. And later that night, Delaware attorney general M. Jane Brady was live via phone on Geraldo Rivera's cable television show, Rivera Live: "Based on the information we have and the autopsy results, we believe that the injuries were intentionally inflicted, and in our state, ... those acts constitute murder in the first degree."
I was absolutely stunned at the state's approach. Just five days had passed since investigators found the baby and conducted an autopsy. That was not nearly enough time for them to have completed a thorough investigation by any means, much less to have gotten critical input from other medical specialists such as a neuropathologist. Yet prosecutors seemed to be telling anyone who would listen that they had a clear case of premeditated, first-degree murder.
It is unfortunate, but cases such as these happen more often than anyone would like to imagine. An unwed teenage mother who has hidden her pregnancy from her parents and everyone else gives birth, and through either some sort of neglect or a more intentional act, the baby dies. There's no question the mother or both parents should be held accountable in some way. But first-degree murder, with the penalties upon conviction being at least life in prison, if not the death penalty?
The representatives of the state's case seemed excessive in their statements and premature judgments. I believe that everything in life is relative, including the administration of justice and penalties. So if officials for the state of Delaware were calling what happened with Grossberg and Peterson first-degree murder, what would they call a case of a serial killer, or someone who deliberately rapes and murders a ten-year-old girl? Those crimes certainly seem more heinous and I think most people would agree deserving of a harsher punishment than two teenagers who, once the facts were in, clearly did not commit first-degree murder. At any rate, how does a system penalize more hardened and heinous criminals more than what prosecutors said they wanted to do to Grossberg and Peterson? Do you torture the child rapist and murderer before executing him? Not according to the Constitution. Sure, the argument becomes absurd, but it gets to my point: the authorities really seemed to have rushed to judgment too quickly and much too forcefully in this case.
In other countries-including Great Britain, from which the United States derives its form of common law-infanticide is considered separate and distinct from other murder charges. A subcategory of neonaticide refers to deaths within the first thirty days of birth. If a mother is accused of killing her child who is less than a year old and "the balance of her mind was disturbed by having given birth," the maximum charge she can face is manslaughter. In fact, a psychological condition that affects some new mothers, known as postpartum depression, is an applicable legal defense in twenty-nine countries. Those countries, which include Canada, Australia, and Italy, realize the unique and often dire circumstances women may find themselves in when it comes to their newborn or infant children.
In any case, I was glad to see that Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who also was on Geraldo's show, shared my opinion. He challenged the attorney general's position that Grossberg and Peterson should face capital murder charges. "There are 3,500 people on death row for more than 100,000 murders. You just don't charge a mother with first-degree murder and capital punishment for the post-traumatic birth syndrome killing of a child," Dershowitz said. "It's tragically common that people get very depressed after they give birth, and it's just unheard of in a civilized society to charge a woman with murder for this."
* * *
I kept an eye on the case as it progressed. The day the Times story appeared, officers arrested Grossberg after she was released from Christiana Hospital in Delaware. Peterson remained at large for several more days, but eventually turned himself in at the FBI offices in Wilmington, Delaware. He had been with his parents and stepfather at a hotel in the city while his attorney, Joseph Hurley, talked with authorities about the teenager's surrender. (Officials had declared Peterson a fugitive and issued a federal arrest warrant for him.) His arrival at the building that housed the FBI was not a secret. Hurley had told the media about it, and hundreds of reporters and television camera crews were waiting. Peterson, wearing a ball cap and a fleece jacket, was flanked by his parents, and as they pushed through the crowd, FBI agents rushed outside to shepherd them through the gauntlet. Someone in the crowd yelled out, "Baby killer!"
Once inside the building, Peterson and his mother both cried, according to Hurley. Now that Peterson had surrendered, Hurley addressed the media throng that had taken such an interest in the case. He acknowledged that Peterson had used bad judgment but said that what happened wasn't murder. "He did something wrong," Hurley said. "But we're not sure what he did wrong." At a court hearing later that day, Peterson was ordered held without bail, the same as Grossberg.
In the first week after Grossberg and Peterson were arrested, defense attorneys raised the possibility that the baby was stillborn, a reasonable theory given Peterson's description of the infant upon birth-blue and lifeless. The Delaware medical examiner's office tried to knock down any suggestion of the sort. Officials said the baby was a full-term, healthy boy who was born alive and showed no signs of birth defects or deformities.
For the Thanksgiving week that year, which began just a few days after the arrests of Grossberg and Peterson, I was able to get away on a short family vacation. If possible, I always like to go somewhere with my wife, my grown children, and their families for the holiday. This time we went to Florida. While there, I learned Hurley wanted to get in touch with me. I contacted him and eventually had a phone conference with Hurley and Dr. Michael Baden, who the defense already had retained. Dr. Baden, who is a close personal friend, is one of the top forensic pathologists in the country and the former chief medical examiner of New York City. "I think we're going to have to get a forensic neuropathologist and an expert in high-risk obstetrics," I said. The neuropathologist would conduct a through and detailed examination of the baby's brain and an obstetrics expert would review Grossberg's clinical scenario before, during, and after delivery.
I was scheduled to fly to Delaware that Monday to join Dr. Baden in an examination of the baby's body, but there was a last-minute change and I never made the trip. From what I understood, another attorney hired to help defend Peterson decided another forensic pathologist was not needed at that point on the case. Although I was puzzled by the decision, I nonetheless told Hurley to contact me if they wanted my assistance in the future.
Several months passed and I didn't hear from anyone involved in the case. However, I continued to read about the latest developments. A grand jury indicted Grossberg and Peterson in December on charges of first-degree murder. On December 17, the two appeared in court to enter not guilty pleas. It was the first time they had seen each other since before their arrests. Grossberg was being held at the Dolores J. Baylor Women's Correctional Institution in New Castle, Delaware, while Peterson was detained at Gander Hill Prison in Wilmington. Superior Court Judge Henry duPont Ridgely refused to grant the teenagers bail but said he would reconsider the issue at another hearing in January.
At that hearing, held January 21, Judge Ridgely agreed to release the couple on $300,000 bail each. But there were conditions: they had to relinquish their passports, sign extradition waivers, live with their parents, and wear electronic monitoring devices attached to their ankles. They also were required to comply with an 8 P.M. to 6 A.M. curfew. Grossberg and Peterson were released later that day, but did not return to New Jersey until January 31, after a monitoring system had been set in place. Once again, the news helicopters hovered and crowds of reporters clogged the streets near the college freshmen's homes about a mile apart from each other. Peterson, his mother, and one of his attorneys, Russell Gioiella, came out of the house briefly, but Peterson did not speak. "I hope you all will give him a chance to be with his family in the privacy of their home," Gioiella said to the mass of reporters.
Then in late May 1997, I received a call from Robert Gottlieb, one of Grossberg's new attorneys. He asked if I would consult on the case to help determine whether the baby was born alive and whether there were any injuries he sustained during birth or any congenital anomalies that would have made his survival implausible. I again agreed, and this time there were no last-minute changes.
By then, several other highly qualified medical experts already were consulting with attorneys for Grossberg and Peterson. Michael Baden, of course, still was involved. The team also consisted of Dr. Harlan Giles, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology from Pittsburgh with extensive experience in genetics, prenatal diagnosis, and birth defects; Dr. Jan Leestma, considered the top forensic neuropathologist in the country and probably the world; and Dr. Janice Ophoven, a nationally known pediatric forensic pathologist.
The next day, I received from Gottlieb a thick packet of documents that included the autopsy report and associated notes, reports from experts whom prosecutors had consulted, copies of slides from the baby's brain dissection, and other correspondence. While I had read and heard media accounts of what the medical examiner claimed to have found during the autopsy, I was eager to see firsthand the medical reports that the authorities were relying on to support a charge of first-degree murder.
Conducting autopsies on newborns and other children is not technically difficult. It is important to document every injury, get adequate x-rays, and perform all the other normal procedures associated with a postmortem examination. But emotionally, it's a different story. Of the thousands of autopsies I've done during the past forty-six years, probably a couple of hundred of them have been on infants and maybe a couple of dozen were on abandoned newborns. I find those cases always more emotionally charged and viscerally disturbing than similar ones involving adults.
I'm not saying that I am insensitive to the brutal deaths of adults, but those of infants or young children make me realize the vulnerability of innocence and the fragility of life. A child has little if any ability to defend himself or herself. And unquestionably absent is any deliberate action on the young victim's part to provoke the horrible crime committed against him or her. They had no say in the way their lives ended, and now they won't have a chance to grow and become a thriving, productive human being.
However, I try very hard not to let the emotional aspect of such cases interfere with my job of determining what may have happened. While the death of any newborn is tragic, it's not always criminal. Sometimes natural deliveries can cause unusual head trauma, and that can be difficult to differentiate from a deliberately inflicted injury. The same goes for resolving whether a baby was born alive. It's not always an easy and clear-cut determination, and I soon realized such an analysis would most likely prove to be quite difficult in this case.
When the infant's body arrived at the Delaware medical examiner's office the morning of November 13, 1996, assistant medical examiner Dr. Adrienne Sekula-Perlman noted it was cold to the touch. She described the baby, called "Baby Boy Grossberg," as "normally developed" and weighing 6.2 pounds. However, small amounts of meconium-intestinal content that comes out of a baby through its anal opening in utero-were noted on the legs and buttocks. That's not an ordinary finding, and to me it was evidence the baby was in distress in Grossberg's womb, which caused the meconium to be expelled.
Excerpted from MORTAL EVIDENCE by CYRIL WECHT GREG SAITZ MARK CURRIDEN Copyright © 2003 by Cyril Wecht, Greg Saitz, and Mark Curriden. Excerpted by permission.
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