Archive for March 22nd, 2011

March 22, 2011

Ryan Widmer: Fourth Time’s a Charm? a column by Angela Derrick

“But once you tell your story into the law, it becomes the object of a precise semantic dissection. The whole of the story is of no interest; instead, patient surgeons of language wait and watch, snip and assay, looking for certain phrases, certain words. Particular locutions trip particular legal switches, and set a heavy machine in motion.”
–D. Graham Burnett
“The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”
–American Bar Association Standards for Criminal Justice

I have just dried off after conducting an experiment: after stepping from my shower at approximately 1:13 p.m. I refrained from using a towel on both my long hair and my body. I wanted to see how long it would take to dry without the aid of a towel or any other implement. At 1:15 my hands were completely dry, my hair was still dripping wet and other parts of my body were rapidly drying. By 1:18 there were a few drops of water left on my forearms but they were otherwise dry. My stomach, upper thighs, lower legs and back had all dried completely. A few drops of water remained on my upper arms from my still wet hair. It took just five minutes for me to dry naturally, no towels involved, but my hair was wet, very wet. Indeed, right now, as I write this, at 1:45 p.m., my hair is still wet.

Why the experiment? I have long hair, just like Sarah Widmer and I wanted to see for myself if a body dries faster than hair. The answer is yes. A body does indeed dry faster. Hair does stay wet considerably longer and there is nothing sinister involved. It is a plain and simple fact.

Who is Sarah Widmer and why should you care? In 2008, 24-year old Sarah drowned in her bathtub and within two days her 27-year old husband Ryan was charged with murdering her. Now, after three trials, the State of Ohio, at the conclusion of a recent third trial, has sentenced Ryan Widmer to fifteen years to life in prison. One of the main lynchpins of the prosecution’s case centered around the premise that, because her hair was wet while the rest of her body was dry, she seemed to have dried in the space of the 6 ½-minute interval of Ryan Widmer’s call to 911 and emergency officials’ arrival, and as a result, this indicated that he drowned her. Interestingly enough, none of her false fingernails were dislodged or had come off her fingers, something one would think might occur in a struggle involving a drowning. There was no water splashed on the floor and no wet towels indicating he had cleaned up water. Sarah was reportedly known to fall asleep frequently in odd places and at odd times. The Widmer’s family, friends, and Sarah’s coworkers and employer all corroborated this. It was a fact of testimony during the trial that Sarah Widmer had a condition of falling asleep at unexpected moments, even in odd places like Bengals games.

There was a simple way to check to see if Sarah Widmer suffered from any undiagnosed neurological diseases or disorders: perform a brain autopsy. The procedure for a brain autopsy is very specific. It involves a process called “fixing the brain,” in which the brain tissue is immersed in a formalin solution for a period of 10 to 14 days following the regular autopsy. According to Southwestern Medical Center, an autopsy brain evaluation allows neuropathologists to examine tissues for neoplastic, infectious, inflammatory, demyelinating, degenerative, vascular, traumatic, metabolic, and developmental disorders. “Inspecting the brain often reveals some surprises,” writes pathologist Dr. Ed Friedlander. “A good pathologist takes some time to do this.”

Why didn’t the coroner, Dr. Russell Uptegrove, know that any brain diseases or brain disorders wouldn’t be visible the day after death? Why didn’t he take the time to rule out this very real possibility?

The Ohio State Coroner’s Association (OSCA) states: “The Coroner is charged by law with the responsibility of determining the cause, mode, and manner of death. The determination of the anatomic cause of death is a medical aspect while the legal interest is all-inclusive and requires that all factors of causation, the mode and manner, as well as the anatomic cause of death be established. The two aspects are so interrelated that they cannot be separated; therefore equal consideration must be given to the medical and legal phases of investigation.”

The presence of two blood stains on the carpet were mentioned during testimony without including the facts that paramedics had noted vaginal bleeding from Sarah Widmer and that feminine sanitary product wrappings in the bathroom waste can were clearly visible in photographs of the bathroom. According to the Department of Forensic Medicine, London Hospital Medical College, “The phase of the menstrual cycle at death is easily determined by a histological (microscopic) examination of endometrial tissue.” It would have been easy to determine if Sarah Widmer was menstruating at the time of her death. Did the Coroner make this determination? This seems like a crucial piece of evidence. If not, why not?

If the state was sure they had a case, why not conduct a brain autopsy in the standard way? If not, why not? If the state was correct in their theory, they would have had nothing to lose. It would have only strengthened their case. So, why the rush?

The question of motive remains murky, and in a criminal case where we are locking someone up for perhaps the rest of his life, how can we do so with an uncertainty as to absolute guilt? To be found guilty of a crime, two elements must be satisfied: that a crime actually occurred and that the person charged had the intent to commit the crime.

How can anyone say beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime actually occurred when all of the proper medical testing was not conducted? Where is the motive in this case; the criminal intent to purposefully commit murder? One of the jurors from the most recent trial reportedly told a news reporter, “We think something happened and he just snapped.” If that is what the jury believed, the jury should have found him not guilty of murder, because that notion does not fit the legal definition of a murder conviction. What the juror described aligns with the legal definition of “voluntary manslaughter.” Did the jury even understand the instructions they were given by the court judge?

Following this last, third trial, several jurors gave statements to the press, expressing that the most bothersome things were that Sarah’s body was completely dry, and that the evidence did not support the defense’s theory that Sarah Widmer had a seizure or medical condition.

It seems clear from the comments made by certain jurors, after this third trial, that they didn’t fully understand the instructions they were given. The legal “burden of proof” rests upon the state, not upon the defendant. A juror allegedly told a friend in pretrial, “Don’t worry about the Widmer case. We all talked about it and we know he is guilty. He is going to burn in hell.” This juror should not have served on the jury. Our jury system is built upon the premise of impartiality. What this juror did was create a biased, tainted jury that likely insured Ryan Widmer could not receive a fair trial.

In our culture we want an explanation for everything. And we want it now. I don’t even believe that a murder occurred. A death occurred. Sarah Widmer, tragically is no longer with us. A review of medical literature reveals that medical doctors are aware that sometimes seemingly healthy young people die for no apparent reason and with little or no warning. Tragic. Now, the tragedy has been compounded by the fact that it has been turned into a murder that presumably wasn’t. Now, a family has lost both a daughter and a son.

Juries make mistakes. This is an indisputable reality that is backed up by the growing number of exonerations of wrongful convictions. A recent study showed that, in as many as six percent of all trials, the jury gets it wrong. That is an alarming statistic. Just think if it was your loved one, your son or daughter, husband or wife wrongfully locked up for something they didn’t do. Just think if it was you.

There are too many unanswered questions, too many doubts, and not enough evidence to satisfy the burden of proof. There was no sign of a struggle, questionable reasoning on the part of the detectives, and a seeming rush to charge and indict. Better to be methodical and reach the correct conclusion than embark on a mad dash to conviction.

The judicial standard of the term “beyond a reasonable doubt” has not been met. The coroner did not perform the proper autopsy to rule out that Sarah Widmer did not have an unknown neurological condition. To be guilty of a crime, a suspect must be proven guilty “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.” We don’t have that here. Reasonable doubt remains.

The defense currently has two motions in front of the court: one motion for a new trial based upon improper comments made by jurors that biased the jury depriving Ryan Widmer of his fundamental right to an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment, and a second motion for acquittal, requesting the court to set aside his murder conviction on the basis that all of the elements of murder have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Both motions have merit, but I believe that the reason we could be looking at the likelihood of a fourth trial is the fact that the evidence does not support the scenario presented by the Prosecution, and this in and of itself is problematic and an inescapable fact because facts do not change. Whether there is a fourth trial or not, facts can’t be altered to support the story we want to believe.

All of the evidence appears to point to one necessary outcome: acquittal. Like it or not, the evidence does not currently support a murder conviction.