Neuropathologist Contests Child Abuse Claims in Dorsey Case

YoloCourt-12by Sarah Senan and Ryan Gonzales

On the morning of October 4, 2016, the case of the People v. Darnell Dorsey  resumed, with Judge Paul Richardson presiding. Pursuant to Cal. Penal Code sections 273a and 273ab, Darnell Dorsey is being charged with assaulting and causing fatal injury to his girlfriend’s 20-month-old child, Cameron Morrison, in January of 2014. Deputy Public Defenders Martha Sequeira and Joseph Gocke represent Darnell Dorsey, while Deputy District Attorney Michelle Serafin represents the prosecution.

The defense previously called to the stand Dr. Roland Auer, a neuropathologist with expertise in adult and pediatric brain damage. Mr. Gocke resumed his direct examination of Dr. Auer, who has confirmed he looked at different tissue samples and lab levels, and observed vitamin D levels as they pertained to Cameron Morrison.

Mr. Gocke began questioning Dr. Auer on additional information regarding lab results. Dr. Auer explained that higher white blood cell counts are significant because it indicates infection. Additionally, he explained the importance of an endotracheal tube being placed improperly. If the tube is placed too high or too low, then an individual suffers from breathing troubles as only one lung is able to be reached. Although both lungs receive blood, trouble still occurs. He explained that “hypoxia,” a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching tissue, also becomes apparent and can result in a  leakage in the brain.

Shortly after, the defense revealed autopsy photos on the screen to the courtroom. Mr. Gocke presented various defense exhibits that Dr. Auer recognized as rib fractures. Dr. Auer claimed that the autopsy revealed the liver to be congested from the surface as well as traumatized.

After being asked what some of the autopsy images depicted, Dr. Auer explained that Cameron’s scalp appeared to be bruised, which is associated with “trauma.” Dr. Auer later explained that he believes that head injury, resulting from a shaking movement, has to go through the neck.

The defense had no further questions.

The prosecution then went on to cross-examine Dr. Auer. Ms. Serafin began by asking Dr. Auer how many times he has testified in court, to which he answered over 45 times. She then asked him to define the word “trauma.” He explained it as what occurs from a motor vehicle accident, a bicyclist hit, an assault, etc. Ms. Serafin also asked whether or not he gets paid to testify and review such cases. Dr. Auer responded, saying that he gets paid by the hour – 400 dollars an hour.

Next, Ms. Serafin asked for more clarification on Dr. Auer’s experience.  Dr. Auer has worked at the Sainte-Justine children’s hospital in Montreal, Canada, for five years, where he examines children’s tissue from biopsies and autopsies to determine disease. He also looked at the brains of all babies who passed away, as it is the law to examine a baby’s autopsy. Prior to that, he had 25 years’ experience at the University of Calgary, where he was both a professor and a neuropathologist. However, at the hospital at Calgary, he did not perform the same tasks. He looked at adults, focusing on spinal cords, muscle, brain and nerves. He also did not conduct an entire autopsy there, but he took part in many and was always watching, which is why he stated that he has examined over 1,000 total autopsies. Furthermore, he stated that he has seen many of hundreds of brains of children under the age of two.

Ms. Serafin continued to question the specifics of Dr. Auer’s experience in regard to baby cases. She questioned whether he has seen only one shaken baby case in Montreal.  However, Dr. Auer later commented that he has seen several such cases.

Next, Ms. Serafin questioned Dr. Auer’s statement regarding rickets disease. Dr. Auer claimed that Cameron has rickets because of the low vitamin D and pathological fractures. He continued to explain that, because of rickets, when CPR is being performed, too much pressure on any bone will break it. However, Serafin later demonstrated that Dr. Auer did not see whether the values provided by the hospital were for a child or an adult.

The final topic of the morning was that of administering CPR. Dr. Auer stated that he has experience seeing CPR efforts cause rib fractures, as it is common when the procedure is forceful. He has seen rib fractures in the chest bone caused by CPR and  the damages have been lateral – on the sides. He has also seen rib fractures in children caused by CPR under the age of two. Dr. Auer stood by his belief that Cameron had a case of rickets.

Testimony Continues in Afternoon

By Ryan Gonzales

In the afternoon of October 4, 2016, the People v. Darnell Dorsey trial resumed, with Judge Paul Richardson presiding.

Deputy District Attorney Michelle Serafin continued the cross-examination of neuropathologist Dr. Ronald Auer, who openly argues against “shaken-baby syndrome” in this case.

She questioned the validity of Dr. Auer’s statements that rib fractures are a common occurrence when CPR is administered. Dr. Auer testified that, through observations and autopsies, he has been able to come to such a conclusion.

Although Dr. Auer stated that he was present during the autopsy of Cameron Morrison, when Ms. Serafin questioned if he conducted the documentation of the rib fractures and if he specifically paid attention to the location of the fractures, he answered no to both. Next, Ms. Serafin questioned how common rib fractures are in children under the age of two, and Dr. Auer had no knowledge of such data.

Considering these statements, Ms. Serafin inquired of Dr. Auer if he would agree that he was not the best person to be drawing such conclusions about the frequency of rib fractures in children. Dr. Auer responded by stating, “There is only one person that is the best.”

The prosecutor retorted by asking, “Are you second best?” Dr. Auer quickly responded, “I don’t know if you are being smart with me, but that question pertains to a specialty in pathology.”

Thus, Ms. Serafin questioned if a radiologist would provide a more educated assessment of rib fractures. Although Dr. Auer responded that sometimes radiologists have trouble diagnosing diseases, he agreed that, in the instance of rib fractures, a radiologist would be the best person to provide expertise.

Next, the prosecution transitioned into the topic of child abuse and shaken-baby syndrome. When Serafin inquired if Dr. Auer had any experience in dealing with child abuse, he testified that his experience with child abuse has been after a child has died. Furthermore, Ms. Serafin asked Dr. Auer to confirm whether he believes that shaken-baby syndrome is not a reliable diagnosis, to which he answered yes.

Following these responses, Ms. Serafin asked if an adult human can inflict damage to a child’s brain. Dr. Auer agreed, and shared that he testified in a case where a father stroked his daughter in the head that resulted in her death. Thus, he stated, “I’ve seen abuse and this case [People v. Dorsey] is not it.”

After this statement, Ms. Serafin asked if they could talk about shaking and impact, but Dr. Auer quickly reacted to the phrasing of the question, stating that he could not discuss the topic because shaking and impact are different and are not the same as suggested by the prosecution’s question (a compound question). He stated, “The g-force of an object hitting the brain is 1000 times great than the force of shaking.”

Ms. Serafin inquired about the doctor’s logic in considering shaking vs. impact. She questioned whether an adult male, who violently shakes his child, can cause trauma to the child’s brain. Dr. Auer testified that there would be damage to the neck if there was damage to the brain. Ms. Serafin responded that she is not investigating the possibility of neck injury, and she repeated the question. However, Dr. Auer responded with the same point that a person or child cannot suffer brain damage from shaking without also suffering neck or spinal cord injury.

At this point of the cross-examination, Ms. Serafin became agitated with the witness and sternly repeated that she did not want to examine the possibility of a neck injury. Dr. Auer explained that the brain and neck are connected, so he must be insistent about also talking about the neck.

Dr. Auer testified that Cameron Morrison did not suffer from trauma or inflicted injury caused by shaken-baby syndrome, but suffered ischemia, defined by Dr. Auer as the lack of blood flow to the brain. Furthermore, he stated that it was cardiac arrest that caused the ischemia to occur.

Additionally, Dr. Auer stated that the cardiac arrest was the direct result of hypoxia, which Dr. Auer explained as not enough oxygen going to an organ or heart – in this case, that was caused by pneumonia.

Then the prosecution examined the notion of pneumonia in Cameron Morrison. Ms. Serafin inquired what was the best way to diagnose pneumonia. Dr. Auer testified that chest X-rays were the best method, besides blood test and MRIs. However, he later testified that he did not look any any scans. Ms. Serafin asked if Dr. Auer was comfortable making such a conclusion without looking at the chest X-rays and he stated, “Yes, because of the autopsy – there was puss in the lungs.”

“This wasn’t pneumonia that developed overnight, this was a sick child,” stated Dr. Auer.

Ms. Serafin then questioned where Dr. Auer saw pneumonia in the medical records of Cameron Morrison prior to his arrival at the UC Davis Medical Center. He stated that it had not been recorded, but that pneumonia diagnosis is “classically missed,” that it can easily be mistaken as a common flu. Following these statements, Ms. Serafin asked if Dr. Auer was aware that all doctors and residents who treated Cameron Morrison noted that he did not have pneumonia when he arrived at UC Davis Medical Center, to which he responded that he was aware.

Ms. Serafin ended the cross-examination of Dr. Auer, asking if he took into consideration the possibility that Cameron Morrison was abused. Dr. Auer responded that he did consider the possibility. Therefore, Ms. Serafin presented a hypothetical situation to Dr. Auer where the notion of pneumonia being present in the victim’s body didn’t exist. He quickly responded that this was not the case. However, Ms. Serafin became extremely adamant that this was a hypothetical situation, and for Dr. Auer just to consider the case of Cameron Morrison without pneumonia, and could could it lead to the assumption of child abuse. Dr. Auer responded, “I have never seen or heard of any case that you just made up.”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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