The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

Local News

February 27, 2013

Medical examiner testifies in murder trial

PALESTINE — State attorneys continued their fifth day of testimony Tuesday in the murder trial of a Palestine woman accused in the death of her 16-month-old stepgranddaughter.

Jennifer Jill Whitehead, 41, is charged with capital murder for the May 5, 2010 death of Emma Nicole Whitehead, who died at a Dallas hospital one day after being transported to Palestine Regional Medical Center for head and other injuries.

First to testify for the state Tuesday was forensic pathologist Dr. Jill Urban, who works as a medical examiner for the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office and performed the autopsy on Emma.

Through the use of photographs taken during the procedure, Urban explained to the jury Emma’s physical condition and how what was discovered led to the conclusion that the child’s death was the result of blunt force injury, with the manner of death deemed to be homicide.

“The bruising on Emma’s body was obvious and consistent with blunt force injury,” the medical examiner testified. “There were bruises to the left buttock and left thigh, from her hip to her thigh.”

The internal autopsy showed “very dense hemorrhaging,” a sign of deep blood loss, in that area.

“I can’t discern if the bruising was the result of repeated trauma,” Urban explained, “just that the large bruise there covers a lot of area.”

While being treated at Palestine Regional Medical Center and at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Urban testified that Emma had received blood transfusions, which can cause a pale child to pink up and change the look of bruises.

“This much bruising tells me that the injuries were obtained in a violent manner, such as in a car accident or other trauma,” she testified to the jury.

Emma’s body showed bruising to the back of the right forearm, the inside of the left leg and ankle and the right leg, with more bruising encircling the right ankle as well. Bruises were also located on her forehead, ear, the palms of her hands and bottoms of her feet.

“It is possible that the injuries to the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet could be defensive wounds,” Urban testified. “None of these injuries were obtained in medical treatment.”

In the internal autopsy, Urban testified to her findings regarding Emma’s head injury — a fractured occipital bone that bruised the brain and caused bleeding in the dura and subarachnoid spaces of the inside of the skull.

The first portion of her testimony regarded examination of the scalp and skull tissue.

“There is a great deal of hemorrhaging in the scalp and tissue over the forehead, which is consistent with blunt force injury,” Urban said. “(In the right side) there are areas of hemorrhaging in the back of the head. I see two separate blows there.”

On the back of the skull, the doctor noted two more separate areas of hemorrhage in the scalp — one confirming the skull fractured that led to Emma’s death.

“This was not an old injury,” Urban testified. “There were four separate blunt force traumas to the head.”

In testifying to the injuries to Emma’s brain, Urban explained that the dura is the outermost membrane that envelops the brain near the skull, with the subarachnoid space being an area between the arachnoid, another protective membrane, and the brain.

“(The dura) is not a spot where one would expect to see any kind of bleeding,” Urban said. “And there is thick hemorrhaging into the subdural space. There is subdural blood accumulated in the base of the skull; it is not supposed to be here.”

In refuting testimony previously presented by defense witness Dr. Thomas William Young, Urban pointed out that the fracture to Emma’s skull was a new injury.

“A healing bone actually starts to calcify and there is no evidence of this in this case,” she testified. “The blood in the area is fresh, and is not the type of injury that a child can walk around with.”

The state also began testimony of Wendell Wilcher, who was an investigator for the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office at the time of Emma’s death.

Now a police officer in Grapeland, Wilcher was the case manager in Emma’s case and conducted the initial interview with Jill Whitehead on the day the child was injured.

“The dispatcher was called by patrol deputy Dan Watkins, who wanted to contact me about a possible child abuse case,” Wilcher testified. “I responded to PRMC, made contact with Deputy Watkins and saw Emma being worked on in the trauma room.”

Wilcher reported that medical staff had everything off Emma and he saw bruising and bleeding on her body.

“My first thought was that it was child abuse,” he said. “I was told she had come in not breathing but had a heartbeat and that there was an awful lot of bruising.”

Still at PRMC, Wilcher spoke with Emma’s grandfather Lance Whitehead and her father Derek Whitehead. When he found out Jill Whitehead had two children, he had deputies escort CPS workers to the school to see them.

“I went to the house and saw Jill Whitehead,” Wilcher testified. “I asked her to come in to the sheriff’s office and answer some questions and her mother transported her there.”

The almost five-hour interview began at about 3:30 p.m. with Wilcher and fellow investigator Ronnie Foster questioning Jill  Whitehead.

On Tuesday, the jury began viewing that video Tuesday and were set to conclude watching it when the trial resumes at 9 a.m. today in the 369th District Court with Judge Bascom W. Bentley III presiding.

Representing the state is Anderson County Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Watkins, with assistance from District Attorney Doug Lowe. The defendant is being represented by Palestine attorney Stephen Evans and Dallas attorney Clipper Peale.

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Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at mrainwater@palestineherald.com

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