A pediatric forensic pathologist has testified that weak bones was a likely cause of death in the case of a man who is accused of killing his 6-week-old son.
On December 18, 2016, the El Dorado County sheriff’s department responded to a call requesting medical aid for an infant. A six-week-old Samuel Swope was transported to Marshall Hospital in Placerville, where he was pronounced dead. The subsequent investigation determined that the death was a homicide. It was also revealed that Michael Swope, the baby’s father, was not the biological father of the child and he reportedly admitted not wanting to care for another man’s child. Swope also admitted tossing Samuel to his wife during an argument.
Michael Swope was charged with second-degree murder and felony child abuse and endangerment in connection with Samuel’s death.
The Expert Testimony
Defense attorney Philip Cozens retained Dr. Janice Ophoven to testify on Swope’s behalf. Dr. Ophoven is a pediatric forensic pathologist who has worked on hundreds of cases involving the death of children.
Dr. Ophoven has over thirty years of clinical, administrative, and quality improvement experience. She is board certified in pathology, forensic pathology, quality assurance, and utilization review. Dr. Ophoven has consulted as a court-certified medical expert in pediatric forensic pathology in criminal and civil cases for both the prosecution and defense. She has also has consulted with medical examiners, coroners, physicians, law enforcement, and legal professionals who have asked her to determine the cause and manner of the child’s injury or death.
Dr. Ophoven testified that she has worked on many cases where an infant had suffered fractures and was initially thought to be the victim of child abuse, but bone disease turned out to be the cause of the breakage. She opined that the case of baby Samuel may fall into that category. However, Dr. Ophoven also said that a fatal blow to Samuel’s head was the likely case of the precipitating fatal incident. Dr. Ophoven said that if baby Samuel’s bones were already compromised due to bone disease, he would be much more susceptible to injury from a blow or other trauma.
Dr. Ophoven concluded that baby Samuel’s abnormal weakness could have accounted for some 30 fractures to the baby’s ribs. These injuries, which were found during Samuel’s autopsy, were a contributing factor to the Sacramento pathologist Brian Nagao calling law enforcement for what he believed was a criminal case of child abuse.
Prosecuting attorney Lisette Suder of the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office raised the issue of expert fees. Suder pointed out that the defense team had paid Dr. Ophoven more than $15,600 so far, implying that the doctor’s testimony would be more favorable to the defense position.
Suder asked Dr. Ophoven whether her “goal was to say that the mom did it and that it (the fatal injury) didn’t happen that day?” Dr. Ophoven denied that contention and said that her findings came straight from the record.