OTTUMWA — A forensic pathologist hired by attorneys for Kelsie Thomas said the death of Cloe Chandler in 2018 was a hanging, refuting a finding by a state medical examiner.
Prosecutors accuse Thomas of killing Chandler, her 5-year-old daughter, in 2018 by manual strangulation. Tuesday was the second and final day of testimony in her retrial on the charge. A jury acquitted her in March of child endangerment causing death but could not reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge.
Thomas waived her right to a jury for this retrial, meaning Judge Lucy Gamon will determine the verdict in the case. The state formally rested at 9:06 a.m. Tuesday, after presenting March trial transcripts of multiple witnesses for Judge Gamon to consider, instead of having them re-appear to testify in person.
Dr. Thomas Young, a forensic pathologist paid $450 per hour by Thomas's defense team, refuted the conclusion arrived at by Dr. Michele Catellier, a forensic pathologist employed by the state's medical examiner's office.
Catellier said the death was by strangulation. Her examination of Chandler's body led her to believe it was not an accidental hanging, as claimed by Thomas and others.
Last week, Catellier said injuries that Chandler had in the muscles and tissues of her neck were abnormal for a hanging and more consistent with strangulation — particularly in cases involving children.
"On the day of autopsy, I expressed concern because, as I mentioned, even with adults having any hemorrhage in the neck with a hanging is unexpected," she testified. "Or, at the very least, a small of hemorrhage might be expected."
Young, however, disputes that claim. He was contacted in December 2019 to review the autopsy report and photos. Dr. Young said he also reviewed Catellier's deposition as well as medical and investigative reports.
Young said some of the injuries noted by Catellier could have been caused during the autopsy or potentially during life-saving attempts on Chandler, who was intubated twice.
Tuesday was the 500th time that Young had testified in a criminal or civil case, he said. For more than 11 years, Young was the chief death investigator for the Kansas City, Missouri, metropolitan area. Since 2007, he has been self-employed with Heartland Forensic Pathology, LLC.
Young said he relied upon Thomas' statement that she found Chandler hanging in her closet with a pair of pajama pants.
He said Chandler lacked types of injuries he'd expect to see in strangulation, such as not seeing signs of a struggle. Dr. Young said the presence of ligature marks is also abnormal for manual strangulation. The marks on Chandler's neck, he said, are upward from the neck to behind the area, which is more indicative of a hanging.
During cross-examination, Wapello County Attorney Reuben Neff brought up a thesis that Young wrote, stating that the scientific method could not be used to determine past events.
Young stated that those beliefs led to his testimony in two trials to be disregarded by a judge.
The use of the scientific method by pathologists and other scientists has led to false accusations, he wrote in 2011. Young, in the thesis, produced a forensic scientific method model that he argued was better. The model has not since appeared in a peer-reviewed study, as Neff pointed out in questioning.
Asked if his theory or method has been acknowledged or accepted by the forensic community, Young said, "They don't acknowledge it, they don't recognize it. They don't talk about it. I haven't submitted that to any forensic pathology journal. I have a hunch that if I did, they wouldn't like it."
Thomas did not testify in the trial. The defense rested their case at 11:42 a.m., and the state did not present any rebuttal evidence.
The prosecution and defense will present written arguments to Judge Gamon by Nov. 3, after which she will file a written verdict in the case.