Christina Hill Murder Trial Proceeds with Expert Witnesses, Who Differ on Issues

By Isabelle Brady and Shady Gonzales

MODESTO, CA – The jury trial here Wednesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court of Joseph Chapman for the murder of Christina Hill resumed with testimony from multiple expert witnesses—and toward the end of the day, their testimonies conflicted.

Hill’s body was found covered in blood and without clothing on May 13, 2019, by a trash can in a private business driveway around 18th and G Streets in Modesto. Chapman was arrested as a suspect in her death four days later, on May 17, 2019.

Chapman’s trial reconvened Wednesday morning with Detective Philip Weber’s testimony. The Vanguard’s previous coverage of the trial, including the first half of Detective Weber’s testimony, can be found here.

Detective Weber discussed the camera footage that was caught at the convenience store near the scene, revealing Chapman and Hill had been walking toward G Street and left the view of the camera at 12:50 a.m.

However, there is a gap of about 50 seconds of film footage missing just before this, caused by common lags in the surveillance camera system.

Chapman and Hill are seen within the same frames of the surveillance footage multiple times throughout the night of May 13, up until 1 a.m.

Sergeant Michael Hicks was called to the stand by Deputy District Attorney Erin Schwartz to provide his testimony. Hicks was one of the active homicide detectives in Hill’s 2019 investigation.

Sergeant Hicks described woman’s underwear and a white sock wrapped in black leggings that were found at the scene of the crime during his investigation. He clarified that the underwear and sock were still inside the sweatpants at the time of their discovery.

Hicks recalled showing another individual who had been traveling in the area on their bike the night of the crime, who had been seen multiple times in the same surveillance videos, an image of the suspect during the investigation. This separate individual had told Hicks “that it could be that person.”

This statement was objected to by defense counsel as hearsay. Judge Dawna Reeves sustained this objection and asked Schwartz to move on to the next question.

Hicks disclosed that there was a gray sweatshirt found on the scene of the crime with a Backwoods logo on it and that Chapman had been wearing this sweatshirt in the surveillance footage on the night of the crime.

Chapman’s defense attorney began his cross-examination of Sergeant Hicks.

Sergeant Hicks described there being blood on clothing at the crime scene, on the ground around the victim, on the wall of the barbershop that the victim was found next to, and on a Nissan Versa that was at the scene as well.

Dr. Michael Joseph Ferenc, current forensic pathologist for the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office, Coroners Division, was called by DDA Schwartz to the stand. Dr. Ferenc has completed at least two hundred autopsies per year since 1986.

Dr. Ferenc recalled doing a sexual assault workup for Hill’s autopsy, investigating four different potential injuries on her body.

Dr. Ferenc clarified that any potential sexual assault material found in dead bodies degrades and decomposes quickly, so it was important for him to begin his investigation in this manner before the autopsy.

Dr. Ferenc affirmed that he found no marks on Hill’s body that he could prove as an injury. He did explain that because Hill’s body had been outside at the crime scene for many hours, evidence found on her body of sexual assault likely made finding evidence more difficult.

He also explained that Hill did have multiple externally blunt impact injuries. He described extensive marks of injury on her face and head, neck, torso, hips, back, the pelvic region, upper-buttocks area, the arms, and the back of the wrists. These were all identified by Dr. Weber as recent injuries.

Dr. Ferenc described finding little pinpoint hemorrhages in Hill’s eyelids. He emphasized the importance of identifying these hemorrhages, as these are a common sign of asphyxia, this being a lack of blood flow to the brain.

He explained that asphyxia could be caused by “drowning, chest compression, strangling, throttling, and things of that nature.”

Dr. Ferenc’s testimony carried into the afternoon, continuing his discussion of “throttling” and other forms of strangulation. According to Dr. Ferenc, “throttling is a more specific term used in forensic pathology for putting your hands around a neck like you’re pulling a throttle, but you’re throttling around the neck.”

Hill had a “very sharp demarcation” between her head and the rest of her body, as her head was much darker. A lot of this was due to congestion and hemorrhage in the scalp, which made Dr. Ferenc concerned that something had been pulled around her to halt her bleeding.

“Part of the reason I used the word ‘strangulation’ in my cause of death,” he said, as opposed to a more technical term like throttling, was because he didn’t know what had been wrapped around her neck.

Dr. Ferenc also touched on Hill’s medical conditions, because he “always weighs and takes into consideration” how sick the victim was before they died during his autopsies.

“How sick is the victim? She’s got emphysema, she’s got drugs in her system that can affect her heart and make it fail, she’s got a lot of hemorrhage in her scalp, meaning that she may be unconscious…she’s lost a lot of blood.”

“And she’s only 61.5 inches and 97 pounds. She’s not a big lady,” he said.

Regarding how much it would take to strangle someone, especially someone like Hill, Dr. Ferenc said, “the amount of force necessary to strangle someone is not necessarily that great. Everybody thinks that when somebody gets strangled, you collapse the windpipe. You don’t do that.

“All it takes is to block the blood vessels there, the veins, which only take a few pounds of pressure, or the arteries, that take a little more pressure…that’s sufficient to prevent adequate blood flow to the brain and the brain to essentially die,” said the witness, adding Hill’s windpipe had not been collapsed.

Dr. Ferenc also testified about Hill’s other injuries, specifically the type of injuries that would have occurred if she was struck repeatedly with an object like a pipe.

Dr. Ferenc did not observe a pattern of injury like what one would expect from repeated strikes, though he did see injuries consistent with being slammed into pavement or a wall.

During cross-examination, Dr. Ferenc addressed the drugs that Hill had in her system when she died, noting Hill had a “significant” amount of methamphetamine in her body, 2.33 milligrams per liter, and 0.36 milligrams per liter of amphetamine, “which is a breakdown product.”

According to Dr. Ferenc, that much methamphetamine is “a level, if somebody didn’t have injuries or other things (done) to them, that in some cases might be an explanation for their death.”

“On the other hand, I have, in good old Stanislaus County here, seen gunshot wound victims with 10 times that amount…it’s highly individual,” he added.

After Dr. Ferenc’s testimony concluded, criminalist Pin Kyo took the stand. Kyo works for the California Department of Justice crime lab and spoke of her DNA analysis of items associated with the crime scene and Hill’s body.

Much of Kyo’s testimony delved into the highly technical and statistical aspects of DNA analysis, though a few takeaways included that DNA from at least three people was found on Hill and there was DNA under Hill’s fingernails that Kyo said likely belonged to Chapman.

Additionally, Kyo mentioned that she found sperm in samples taken from Hill’s body.

Earlier, Dr. Ferenc had said there was no evidence of forceful sexual penetration.

Kyo’s testimony will continue Thursday.

About The Author

Isabelle is a first year undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara majoring in philosophy. Her passions include writing, criminal justice reform and reading Kurt Vonnegut. She may or may not eventually attend law school.

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