By Lauren King
The preliminary hearing of Darnell Dorsey came to a close on March 3, 2015, at the Yolo County Superior Courthouse. Mr. Dorsey was arrested and charged for assault leading to the death of twenty-month-old Cameron Morrison. Mr. Dorsey has been in custody since his arrest last January. The testimony of Dr. Ikechi Ogan, the forensic pathologist assigned to this case, took up the entirety of the day’s proceedings. The following section of today’s article contains information that some may find graphic or upsetting.
Deputy District Attorney Michelle Serafin called Dr. Ogan to the witness stand and began direct examination. Dr. Ogan has been a forensic pathologist for the state of California since 1998. He has been trained to “understand how the human body is injured and how it died.” Dr. Ogan earned his M.D. in 1985 and then went on to complete additional residency programs in pathology, surgery, and forensics.
Dr. Ogan has conducted around 5000 autopsies. Three hundred of these autopsies were conducted on children under the age of two. Each autopsy is performed in several steps. First, Dr. Ogan collects background information by talking to law enforcement and other personnel involved in the case. He then looks for external signs of death or injury. After a thorough examination of the body’s exterior, the doctor cuts into it from neck to torso, examining each organ and tissue. Once these steps are complete, the skull is opened so that the brain and skull may be examined. The doctor will also send out samples of things such as bile, vitreous fluid, and organ tissue for testing.
The witness testified that there are mandatory autopsies that must be performed by law. Examples of such cases are those involving violent deaths, minors, death by drug or toxin, infection, a person who dies within twenty-four hours of visiting a medical professional, death of a law enforcement officer, and cases in which child abuse is suspected.
Dr. Ogan has testified in over 100 legal proceedings and was deemed an expert by Judge Paul K. Richardson.
On January 27, 2014, Dr. Ogan performed an autopsy on Cameron Morrison at the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, Coroner’s Section, in Woodland. Before beginning the procedure, Dr. Ogan spoke with the investigating officers and agencies that were involved in the case in order to gather background information. He also asked permission to review the child’s medical records, which he received after examining the body.
Upon first viewing the body, Dr. Ogan noted that it belonged to a black, male infant. The infant wore only a diaper and medical tubing. During the external examination, the doctor saw evidence that suggested that the child was well nourished and hydrated, poorly groomed, and had sustained multiple injuries. There was a quarter inch laceration on the left side of the child’s lip and he had discolorations and lacerations on his back and chest. Dr. Ogan was also able to feel a fractured sternum and found contusions on the child’s back and buttocks. The back contusions were located outside of the child’s ribs. The doctor was able to feel two fractured ribs on each side at the fourth rib. The external evidence pointed to injuries sustained in the areas where one would place their hands when holding a child in the air.
The doctor was also able to feel several soft spots, located in various areas, on the baby’s head. This implied that there were contusions and bleeding beneath the surface. Dr. Ogan testified that there should not be soft spots in a baby of this age. The skull should already be fused, but it appeared that part of the skull had somehow become unfused.
Dr. Ogan then began an internal examination of the body. The doctor was able to visibly see several rib fractures and bleeding in the space between the fresher breaks. Upon feeling the ribs, Dr. Ogan was able to detect older, healed fractures on other ribs. These ribs were irregular, knobby in appearance, and in various stages of callousing. The left side of the child’s ribcage had fresh, recent fractures on the sixth, seventh, ninth, and tenth ribs. The right side had fractures on the sixth, eighth, ninth, and tenth ribs. Some of the latter were fresh and others had formed callouses, demonstrating the bone’s healing process.
DDA Serafin then gathered photographic evidence to be presented to the court; however, she first asked the attending family members whether they wanted to remain in the courtroom while autopsy photographs were to be shown. When they replied that they wanted to stay, DDA Serafin said gently, “They don’t look like him; they won’t look like him.”
The first photograph displayed the child’s open torso with all organs removed. This photograph was meant to highlight some of the doctor’s findings. One could visibly see several fresh rib fractures with pooled blood in their open spaces and other ribs that were knobby in appearance due to callous formation. This photograph prompted silent crying from Mr. Dorsey and the attending family members.
The second photograph depicted a group of fresh fractures with pooled blood as well as several older fractures with callous formation. These callouses would normally turn to scar tissue that would reunite the bones. A third photograph displayed the same types of injuries on the right side of the ribcage. The photographs that followed exhibited closer views of the open ribcage to enable one to more clearly see the different stages of healing. One of these photographs showed Dr. Ogan’s hands bending one of the fractures apart to demonstrate its severity. The rib fractures were consistent with a baby being grasped on both sides.
Dr. Ogan believed that these injuries were quite severe and that they appeared to be sustained from blunt force trauma. The evidence suggested that an adult was gripping the child in the location of the injuries. The doctor also testified that the injuries could not have been sustained by a single, accidental injury because of the different stages of healing present.
Dr. Ogan also examined the child’s internal organs. The liver had ruptured and exhibited multiple contusions, lacerations, and hematomas. Three different photographs were presented to display these injuries. The fresh rib fractures and liver damage seemed to have occurred at the same time due to the fact that they were in the same stages of the healing process. There were also contusions on the lower portions of the lungs. The lung damage also appeared to be a fresh, blunt force injury. A female family member became overwhelmed and removed herself from the courtroom. The hearing was suspended for a brief recess.
After the recess, Dr. Ogan testified that he also noted lacerations and contusions to the child’s mesentery. The mesentery is a fold of membrane that attaches the intestines to the abdominal wall and holds them in place.
He then examined the child’s scalp and skull. Dr. Ogan detected contusions with hemorrhages on the scalp’s inner surface. The skull was bulging and its sutures had separated. The contusions were primarily located on the sides of the child’s head. The contusions appeared to be both old and new. The bulging likely occurred due to brain swelling caused by bleeding inside the head and the sutures separated from the amount of pressure that was present as a consequence of the bleeding and swelling. The child’s brain was also bleeding, but the skull was not fractured. The brain injury did not appear to be one that could occur accidentally. These injuries were also consistent with blunt force trauma.
The doctor also found hemorrhaging in the eyes and bleeding along the optic nerve. The bleeding was visible to the naked eye. There were also retinal hemorrhages in each eye. Dr. Ogan found no injury to the child’s neck, mouth, or esophagus. There were no foreign bodies or obstructions found in these areas. The doctor testified that he would expect to see some sign of injury to these areas if the child had choked.
Dr. Ogan concluded that Cameron Morrison’s cause of death was a traumatic brain injury due to multiple blunt force injuries, both acute (fresh) and chronic (older). The doctor found no other possible cause of death in the child’s medical records. This finding, as well as the physical evidence, caused Dr. Ogan to believe that the child’s death was a homicide.
Deputy Public Defender Joseph Gocke then cross-examined the witness. Dr. Ogan reiterated that he had spoken with specialists and law enforcement prior to conducting the autopsy. This information pointed toward non-accidental trauma. The doctor found that the child’s neck was intact and that there was no damage to the discs within the neck. There was also no injury to the spine or face bones.
Dr. Ogan sent out samples of both eyes, the brain, bile, liver tissue, and blood for testing by specialists in each field. The bloodwork ruled out brittle bone disease, metabolic diseases, and vitamin D deficiency. Microscopic sections of the ribs were also sent to specialists to narrow down the time of injury. They are able to determine the time of injury within a range of a few hours.
On December 5, 2014, Dr. Ogan signed off on the autopsy report. This was eleven months after the initial autopsy procedure. DPD Gocke also inquired further about the child’s lungs. There was pulmonary edema in multiple areas the lungs. Dr. Ogan also discovered pus and mucousy material oozing from the lungs after he cut into them. This finding revealed that the child also suffered from pneumonia at the time of his death.
DPD Gocke probed for inconsistencies and other plausible explanations for the injuries. Dr. Ogan testified that there were no injuries to the diaphragm, which is located between the chest cavity and the abdomen. The liver is located right beneath the diaphragm. As previously stated, there were also no neck injuries. Dr. Ogan noted that head and neck injuries are often seen together due to their proximity to one another. The public defender suggested that these types of injuries could have been caused by the impact of a car crash. Dr. Ogan admitted that head and neck injuries can be inflicted in this manner, but most of the child’s injuries were not consistent with this explanation.
DDA Serafin briefly administered a redirect examination of the witness. Dr. Ogan stated that the lack of neck injury did not change his opinion that the child’s injuries were caused by blunt force. He also explained that trauma can occur to the head without any trauma in the neck, which is what occurred in this case. Dr. Ogan added that intubated patients in hospitals frequently develop pneumonia.
DPD Gocke then questioned the doctor further about the time lapse between the initial autopsy procedure and the report’s finalization. Dr. Ogan informed the public defender that he had completed several dictations between January 27 and December 5. As more evidence and information became available, Dr. Ogan wished to factor these things into his report. This autopsy was very comprehensive. The doctor stated, “I wanted to know what killed the child.” Dr. Ogan acknowledged that oxygen deprivation could cause brain swelling and intracranial pressure, but articulated that the hematomas could not have been caused by this.
The witness was then excused and counsel delivered brief arguments. DDA Serafin felt that the evidence demonstrated that the child was killed due to blunt force injuries and that Mr. Dorsey likely caused them. For this reason, the prosecutor asked to submit a holding order.
Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira disagreed with these conclusions. She argued that the only evidence that suggested Mr. Dorsey inflicted the injuries was the fact that he was the last person with the child. She reminded the court that Mr. Dorsey was only alone with the child for 45 minutes before the mother returned to the home. DPD Sequeira also argued that law enforcement stopped investigating people after they arrested Mr. Dorsey. They did not investigate the mother or any of the other individuals who had access to the child in the six weeks prior to his hospitalization.
Judge Richardson noted that it was interesting that the mother did not notice any sign of injury prior to finding her child unconscious. She told law enforcement that the child only exhibited flu-like symptoms earlier that day. However, Mr. Dorsey could have inflicted the injuries when he shook the child (which he admitted to doing after he found the child unconscious). The injuries were consistent with the shaken baby theory and the judge saw no other plausible explanation. Mr. Dorsey was scheduled an arraignment for March 20, 2015, at 10:00 a.m.