Prosecutor blasts expert who claimed 8-year-old boy died from infection, not parental abuse
MARIETTA, Ga. — A prosecutor in the trial of two parents accused of murdering their son challenged the professionalism of a key defense witness Tuesday by asking whether a dermatologist was an “advocate or a scientist.”
Prosecutor Eleanor Dixon posed the question to dermatologist Dr. Cheryl Burgess a day after Burgess testified that 8-year-old Josef Smith died as a result of a bacterial infection brought on by dermatitis eczema.
Dixon alleges the child’s parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, killed their son by asphyxiation and blunt-force trauma to his head as a result of child abuse.
The couple is charged with four counts of felony murder, five counts of first-degree cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment for their son’s death.
On Monday, Burgess told the panel that after reviewing Josef’s high white blood cell count, fever, and what she diagnosed as eczema on much of the boy’s skin, the cause of his death was a bacterial infection.
Burgess said Josef scratched his skin so severely that the fatal bacteria was able to enter his bloodstream and kill him.
But during cross-examination Tuesday, Dixon asked how the dermatologist could make such a finding when she isn’t a forensic pathologist and never read the police reports, interviews of family members or the opinions of Josef’s treating doctors.
“If you see a rash, you want a complete history,” Dixon said. “But you didn’t have the complete history of Josef in this case.”
Dixon said a history would have revealed that no family member ever mentioned Josef was scratching himself in the months and days leading up to his death.
Dixon said Burgess’ failure to fully review all the evidence in Josef’s case left the doctor with “no idea the child was beaten with a belt, extension cord, high-heeled shoe and wooden paddle.”
“I worked off the materials that were provided to me,” Burgess said, adding that she was told there was only “some spanking.”
The doctor said she was glad she wasn’t told about the alleged abuse and the weaponry because it may have biased her opinion.
Burgess said the “skin speaks for itself,” and upon examining the wounds on Josef’s body, she didn’t see patterns consistent with the items the Smiths allegedly used to beat Josef.
“A history is important, but the dermatologist is the detective and we investigate,” Burgess said.
Burgess told the jury that it didn’t surprise her that Josef’s family members didn’t notice him scratching because “eczema comes and goes. It heals on its own and comes back.”
She added that videotape of Josef at a faith-based summer camp roughly two months before his death showed the child scratching himself several times.
When Dixon asked whether Burgess considered herself an advocate or a scientist, the Georgetown University professor said she was most certainly the latter.
Prosecutors recalled the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Kris Sperry, to challenge Burgess’ findings as part of the state’s rebuttal case.
Sperry said it is “extremely rare” for someone to scratch themselves enough for deadly bacteria to enter the bloodstream and cause an infection.
He said infection is most often seen in the severely mentally retarded who are affected by a self-mutilation syndrome, which causes them to bite and scratch themselves deep enough to allow such fatal bacteria entry into the bloodstream.
Also Tuesday, Joseph and Sonya Smith decided not to testify in their own defense.
The couple did so only after Cobb County Superior Court Judge Jim Bodiford warned the Smiths of the “danger” they could face from the prosecution if they chose to take the stand.
“At the other table [is] an experienced counsel that’s ready to pounce on you,” Bodiford said to the couple outside the presence of the jury. “Ms. Dixon is ready to tear you limb for limb.”
The Smiths face 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
Closing arguments are expected to begin Wednesday morning and will be shown live on Court TV Extra.