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SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Members of the jury are home Thursday night– after hearing for the first time from a medical expert who testified that Leslie Neulander’s death was accidental.
On the first day of the defense’s case – Dr. Jonathan Arden took the stand after Joanne London, Leslie Neulander’s sister.
Dr. Arden has decades of experience in medical examiner’s offices – spending time as the Chief Medical Examiner for Washington D.C.
Retained by Robert Neulander – Dr. Arden testified that he has reviewed the reports and images from Leslie’s autopsy, along with her death certificate and additional pieces of evidence, ultimately concluding that Leslie had died from a single blow to the head, striking a stationary object, supporting the defense’s theory that Leslie died of an accidental fall.
In the defense’s line of questioning – attorney Jonathan Bach asked multiple questions in direct reference to what we heard last week from other medical experts, that Leslie died from multiple impacts to the head.
Prosecutors had called former Onondaga County Medical Examiner Robert Stoppacher, nationally recognized forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, as well as Dr. Barbara Wolf and Dr. Zhongxue Hua, both having seen thousands of autopsies themselves as chief medical examiners in Florida and New Jersey.
Though there were some nuances – the four of them collectively argued that while Leslie’s injuries were consistent with a fall, there are exceptions to those rules. They said that based on the other evidence in the bedroom – including blood spatter and what they determined to be a piece of Leslie’s head on the headboard – her injuries could be explained by multiple blows to the head, creating a phenomenon known as “fall-like” blows.
Each of them concluded that the manner of Leslie’s death was homicide. The prosecution’s experts argued that these wounds could have formed through Leslie being hit multiple times or being hit while her head was kept stationary against another object, such as a mattress.
The defense maintained that the prosecution had not presented a plausible argument for how exactly Leslie was killed, if that’s in fact what happened – using Dr. Arden today to counter the medical explanations.
Dr. Arden said that while the exceptions they described exist – they’re extremely rare. He argued that based on the contusions and fractures on Leslie’s head, it is far more likely that she took a single blow, with her moving head hitting a stationary object.
The defense, expected to bring in additional medical experts. During jury selection, Bach anticipated this – asking would-be jurors multiple times how they would sort out conflicting expert opinion.
“If they’re doing their jobs correct and they’re putting it in plain language, then to the jury its going to come down to a question of common sense,” said Peter Pullano, a partner at Tully Rinckey with 35 years of experience as a defense attorney.
Pullano said it’s ultimately up to the jury to decide – and how the attorneys choose to translate medical jargon is equally important.
DA Bill Fitzpatrick appeared to be banking on that in his cross-examination tactics Thursday, in stark contrast to how Bach asked questions of doctors brought in by the prosecution.
Bach – primarily focused on medical minutiae, comparing the opinions presented in this trial by medical experts to their past testimonies on similar head wounds or to medical texts they agree are authoritative, looking to establish that Leslie’s wounds must be from a fall.
Bach also looked for clear explanations to how Leslie would have received multiple blows to explain the theories of the medical experts.
Thursday – DA Fitzpatrick moved on almost entirely from medical terminology.
“I’m not going to play games with you,” Fitzpatrick began.
He showed multiple images of blood spatter in the room, and also played portions of Jenna Neulander’s 911 call, asking if Dr. Arden took any of this into consideration when forming his opinion. The doctor either said no or said he had no opinion.
Fitzpatrick also referenced multiple prior cases where numerous doctors were against Dr. Arden’s opinion – Bach objected multiple times to this, the judge sustained.
Bach did ask multiple questions of the prosecution’s medical examiner’s experience and reasons for demotions – Fitzpatrick did the same at the end, asking why Dr. Arden did not carry out his 6-year tenure in Washington DC.
Fitzpatrick read out a report from the inspector general – claiming that Dr. Arden was incompetent and had sexually harassed employees. Dr. Arden pushed back against this firmly – saying this is entirely incorrect.
In the redirect – Bach brings things back to medical and scientific evidence for the basis of Dr. Arden’s opinions.
These contrasting styles of cross-examination are likely to play a factor in how the jury digests the information provided by these experts.
“Experts’ own ability to present themselves is going to be a huge factor, and the lawyer’s ability to take the jargon of the expertise and put it in plain language for the jurors is going to be a second factor,” Pullano told CNY Central, both of those are going to go a really long way for what the jury eventually accepts and what they reject.”