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Peterson on trial 

Death by towels and strangulation?

A welcome one-week cease-fire upstream of Durham Medical Examiner Dr. Kenneth Snell's testimony gave me time to hunker down with Kathleen Peterson's autopsy--to me just another act of murder, an act pioneered and perfected by humans, this on the anniversary of Nagasaki...

"One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic," said Joseph Stalin.

You reckon the non-combatants in Iraq got clean little autopsies? Or Kosovo? Or Chechnya, or Liberia? There are way bigger issues than this Peterson thing, yet I have this gig which every day leaves me at the end feeling sort of unclean. I'm a whore. Fine. If I'm going to go a-whoring over one grubby, over-hyped death, one "round-the-world" coming up, boys.

As a child I once careered, evading my brother, headlong into an 12-inch I-beam at a loading dock one Sunday afternoon behind Cameron Village. "I'm dying," I kept screaming. "Don't be silly. You're not dying--hush," my mother said as she mopped up the what seemed like quarts of blood. Turns out I was almost correct.

The scalp is a one solid mass of vascular tissue. There are no major vessels, but it's as blood-saturated a part of the body as you will find. And when there is a laceration, because of the structure of the scalp tissue, without help, stitches, tape, something--the bleeding doesn't stop. A simple cut can cause death via a remarkably quick "bleed-out" of much of the body's five to six quarts of blood (tales of bald settler grannies revisiting the day of their scalpings notwithstanding.)

A news story from the July 26 Sand Mountain Reporter in Alabama. Seems a convenience store clerk got robbed and beaten to death with, the state claimed, a pipe and a "giant can of sweet peas." Blow-pokes? Unh-unh. Not weird enough. Death by legume.

Rick Allen Belisle whupped clerk Joyce Moore wit' the peas to the tune of eight lacerations and some nasty high-velocity skull fracture. Death would have been "immediate to 15 or 20 minutes," according to an expert.

The witness had indicated one cut, an inch long.

"That little injury could be fatal, just from bleeding to death alone."

So I took a trip down the digital yellow brick road, which eventually wended its way to a jurisdiction that has had some doozies and a famous medical examiner who would talk--as long as there was no attribution.

"You're in another state, for cryin' out loud. Who cares?"

The voice on the phone just laughed. "I'm staying out of this one."

Asked me what I had and I ran through it. I asked about the one-inch cut.

"First of all, yeah, you can bleed to death from a laceration an inch long," and as quickly as the story in that paper, the source said.

I got to details of the evidence.

"What about someone breathing after they're supposed to be dead?"

"One. He might have been mistaking agonal respiration for breathing." The so-called death rattle, the dying body taking in oxygen and vibrating the soft palate tissues. I mimicked the dry snore.

"Hey, that's good! Perfect. Exactly what it sounds like"

"And two?"


"What's that?"

"He's lying." He wants to know how long she lay there.

"Story is she went to bed at midnight. Peterson came inside from poolside, discovered her and dropped the dime at 2:43. Said "she's still breathing," and called six minutes later to say she had stopped breathing. Is agonal respiration still a factor, assuming she fell when she went inside; is it possible?"

"No." A simple and efficient answer.

Then Michael Peterson's emergency intervention. The primary emergency treatment for scalp laceration is to staunch the flow via direct pressure. The worst thing one can do is use absorbent materials--toweling and the like. Maybe it was panic, but despite Peterson maybe knowing a thing or two about triage, that is exactly what happened. Absorbent materials were placed behind Kathleen's head, which would have sucked the blood out of her brain even more quickly and effectively than just a polished hardwood floor.

"That's kind of strange in itself," Deep Throat says. "But, like you say, the guy's wife is dying..." Freaking out.

"Except the man's a combat vet, doctor. You don't get a Silver Star for roasting weenies. He's seen bunches of dead people."

"Gunshots and blast, probably not scalp lacerations."

OK. Fair enough. On to this cartilage business. The thyroid is the largest cartilage of the larynx, offering some protection to the airway. It is composed of two flat wings, the laminas and two posterior processes, or horns, the superior and inferior thyroid cornua. Posteriorly, the laminas do not come in contact, giving the thyroid cartilage a V-shape--not unlike one of those beautiful little birds you found in broken sand dollars that time your family went to Topsail.

Snell's report noted that "there was also a fracture with associated hemorrhage of the left superior cornu of the thyroid cartilage in the neck," a rare condition due to the protected location of the larynx. The reading I'd done said that, besides auto accidents, the biggest cause of this sort of fracture is strangulation. And that someone has been strangled doesn't mean you will see bruising of the neck. And when there is death by strangulation, the developing livor (change in body color because of death) can make the bruising easy to miss.

"You get that injury from manual strangulation," the voice on the phone said. "They also show up in car accidents, contact with the steering wheel or the dash--your typical 'clothesline' injury. And the other one?"

"Hit me."

"A karate chop."

"That'd shut someone right up."

"Sure would."

"Funny thing is, even with an abrasion on the neck, not a lot of chatter about strangulation."

There is a pause. "Huh. Kinda funny. Any petechiae--burst blood vessels in the eyes, lips, soft tissues?" That'll show you if the victim was strangled for an extended time. The arteries in the neck continue to pump blood into the head and since the veins are more easily collapsed, you get pressure building up in the head--bloodshot eyes and so forth.

"Didn't mention it." Maybe Snell will have something to say when court resumes.

If the pressure were enough to fracture the cornu of the thyroid cartilage, but not enough to cause petechiae, we agreed that it could be a sign that the pressure on the neck didn't last long, enough to, say, seize the neck and give the head three or four good licks on a stair or something.

"Any hemorrhage in the soft tissue around the fracture?"

There was--indicating a recent injury.

"OK. Defense is going to say that the fracture was caused by hyperextension, bending the neck in the fall. Problem is, if the fracture is on the horns of the cartilage, there is no way to get there except with a hand or something. It is too well-protected and cushioned by the soft tissues of the neck to get damaged in a fall. You do not get, rarely and I mean never, I repeat, do not get them from a fall down a flight of stairs."

So here we are. A rare cause of death for a fall--seven complex scalp lacerations; an injury to the thyroid cartilage consistent with strangulation; a person breathing for two hours after an injury that'll kill you in minutes. I'm betting on a hung jury. EndBlock

Peter Eichenberger can be reached at

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