Medical expert’s reliance on case history to develop opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty on cause of murder victim’s death

Com. v. Walters, 2022 WL 1016624 (Pa. Super.) (unreported), allocatur granted Oct. 18, 2022, appeal docket 102 MAP 2022

Phillip Donald Walters was convicted of the first degree murder of his girlfriend by strangulation. The conviction was based in part on the testimony of Dr. Gary Ross, who stated to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the victim’s cause of death was strangulation. However, Dr. Ross’s examination of the victim’s body alone gave no indication that she was strangled.  Although the victim died on December 31, 2018, her body was not discovered until July 20, 2019 when her remains were retrieved from the Susquehanna River in a much deteriorated state.  In reaching his conclusion, Dr. Ross relied on a process of elimination and the “history of the case” that came out in the statements of the defendant’s former sexual partner Ms. Bell. In particular, Ms. Bell, who said defendant called her after he had killed the victim and asked her to come to his home, stated that the defendant explained to her that after striking the victim in the back of the head with a hammer, he choked her until she did not fight back anymore. On appeal from Walters’ conviction, in reviewing Walters’ claim that the trial court erred in allowing Dr. Ross’s testimony, the Superior Court summarized Dr. Ross’s testimony as follows:

Dr. Ross summarized his findings and stated he relied on process of elimination and the history of the case to conclude that the victim died of strangulation. “The conclusion my cause of death was that she died by strangulation which was by history. There was no anatomic indication that she was actually strangled. If I looked at the body alone without any history, I could not say that. It would have to be an undetermined death.” Id. at 31 (emphasis added). Contrary to Appellant’s argument, Dr. Ross testified that his conclusions were within a reasonable degree of medical certainty. Id. at 36.

Slip op. at 14  (emphasis in original).

Rejecting Walters’ claim that allowing Dr. Ross’s testimony was error and violated his right to due process and a fair trial because it was based on Bell’s account of the victim’s death, thus bolstering Bell’s credibility, Superior Court reasoned that the Supreme Court in Com. v. Bullock, 913 A.2d 207, 211 (Pa. 2006) appeared to have approved a medical examiner’s ability to consider case history in arriving at a cause of death (“At trial, the coroner stated that [the victim’s] cause of death was ‘strangulation by history,’ which refers to the events immediately preceding the death, […] this conclusion was apparently based, in part, upon the occurrences as related by Appellant in his statement to police.”), and went on to conclude:

[O]ur review of Dr. Ross’ testimony reveals no support for Appellant’s assertion that Dr. Ross vouched for Bell’s credibility. Dr. Ross testified that the victim’s body exhibited “almost complete skeletonization of the head and neck organs.” N.T., 10/26/20, at 19. Thus, there was no evidence from which Dr. Ross could determine whether the victim suffered neck trauma. Id. at 20. Dr. Ross sought to exclude other potential causes of death; he examined the remains of the victim’s brain, heart, lungs, and other organs and found no sign of disease or other explanation for the victim’s death. Id. at 25-27. There was no trauma to the victim’s skull or skeletal system, other than the absence of hands and feet, which Dr. Ross stated was common given the state of decomposition. Id. at 18-19, 27, 29. In summary, Dr. Ross found no evidence of death from natural causes.

In summary, the record does not support Appellant’s argument that Dr. Ross, in rendering his opinion, vouched for Bell’s credibility. He stated that he recovered no evidence to support Bell’s claim of strangulation, and that he based his conclusion on the history of the case as provided to him. Dr. Ross also testified that rendering an opinion based on the case history is something he had done in other cases. … Dr. Bell’s expert opinion did not invade the jury’s province of assessing Bell’s credibility. We find no merit in Appellant’s assertion that the trial court should have excluded it.

Slip op. at 14-16.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to decide the issue, as stated by petitioner:

Whether the Superior Court misapplied controlling case law and misapprehended controlling facts in concluding that the trial court did not err as a matter of law or abuse its discretion in allowing the Commonwealth to present the testimony of Dr. Gary Ross concerning the cause of death “by history[,]” which was devoid of any objective medical findings and did not comport with a conclusion or opinion “within a reasonable degree of medical certainty” thereby not only improperly bolstering the credibility of Gabel Bell but depriving Petitioner of his right to due process and a fair trial?


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