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Expert Witnesses Participate in Infant Murder Trial

Last week a Chicago criminal court declared a mistrial in the murder case of Jessica Cruz, who has been accused of killing her baby moments after it was born and disposing of the body in a trash can in Salvation Army store restroom.  During the trial, which left jurors hopelessly deadlocked, two forensic pathologist expert witnesses offered contradictory reports as to whether or not the infant was alive after the birth at all.

Jessica Cruz Accused of Murdering Infant

Jessica Cruz was arrested in November of 2011 after police connected the body of a newborn that employees of the Chicago-area Swiss Army store found to the then 19-year-old woman. Jessica, now 22, was charged with first-degree murder and concealment of a homicide for allegedly killing her infant shortly after giving birth.  Prosecutors sought life in prison for what the state called, “exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior indicative of wanton cruelty.”

Crucial to the Cruz trial was the question of whether or not the baby was alive at the time of his birth.  According to authorities, Cruz gave birth to living baby boy then put the baby into a garbage bag, tied the bag around his neck, put his body into a garbage can and covered him with paper towels.  She attempted to clean up the restroom before leaving to clean herself in another store nearby the Salvation Army outlet.

Through her attorneys, Cruz has denied the claim that the baby was alive.  According to her story, the infant was stillborn and, because she did not know what to do, she hid the body in a trash can without alerting police or medical personnel.  Both prosecutors and defense attorneys called medical expert witnesses who debated whether or not the baby boy was alive at birth throughout dueling testimony presented during trial.

Medical Expert Witnesses Debate Life of Infant

To support the state’s argument that Jessica Cruz gave birth to a living baby boy before strangling him with a garbage bag and leaving his body in a bathroom trash can, prosecutors called upon the Cook County medical examiner’s office.  The assistant medical examiner who was part of the murder investigation took the stand as an expert witness in order to inform jurors that the baby died of strangulation.  Pointing to x-rays and a float test that indicated the baby boy had taken life, Dr. Ponni Arunkumar testified to jurors that the baby had been alive and strangled in an act of homicide, giving prosecutors the testimony they needed to argue that Cruz had committed murder.

Defense attorneys mounted a spirited counter-attack by calling a separate medical expert witness to cast doubt on the county examiner’s conclusion that the baby was born alive before being strangled.  Dr. Janic Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist, was called as a medical expert witness for the defense to tell jurors that there was not sufficient evidence to prove the boy survived the birth.  Dr. Ophoven countred Dr. Arunkumar’s claim that the boy had taken breath by comparing the infant’s lungs to an x-ray of a stillborn baby in its first or second trimester.  The defense medical expert went on to testify that the alveolar sacs in the lungs were “inconsistent with live birth” and opined that the baby could have asphyxiated while moving through the birth canal.

The competing medical expert witnesses debated the critical question of whether or not the infant boy was alive at the time of birth during testimony to jurors, and both parties pointed to the expert evidence during closing arguments before jury deliberations.

Jurors Unable to Reach Verdict

Ultimately, the jury was not able to agree which evidence was more credible and after three days of contentious deadlock, Judge Bridget Hughes formally declared a mistrial.  While a mistrial is not akin to a conviction, it is evidence that the defense expert witness was able to sway some members of the jury with testimony that the evidence of the infant’s live birth was unconvincing.  Cruz will undergo another murder trial with a new jury, which will unquestionably feature the same, or similar, expert witnesses to once again engage in debate about whether or not the baby boy was alive after his birth.