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Expert Witness Testimony

Expert Testimony in the Curtis Lovelace Murder Trial

Curtis Lovelace was arrested in August 2014 for the murder of Cory Lovelace on Valentine’s Day in 2006. His first trial ended in a hung jury. After hearing testimony from 24 prosecution witnesses and 8 defense witnesses, the jury in his second trial returned a not guilty verdict in Lovelace’s favor. Expert witnesses played a crucial role for both sides in the trial.

Facts of the Case

Curtis Lovelace was something of a celebrity in Quincey, Illinois. He was a star football player at the University of Illinois. He returned to Quincey after earning his law degree and became a prosecutor. He was also a member of the local school board.

Media accounts describe Corey Lovelace, Curtis’ first wife, as a “gregarious former cheerleader and honors student from a prominent family.” Eight years after Curtis reported finding his 38-year-old wife dead in their bedroom, he was arrested for murdering her.

Curtis told the police that he took the children to school, returned home, took a shower, and worked on the computer. When he went into the bedroom to check on his wife, he discovered that she was dead.

The paramedics who arrived on the scene noted that Cory’s body was still warm but that rigor mortis was setting in. Curtis told the paramedics that Cory had been sick in bed with the flu. Other witnesses confirmed her illness.

Neighbors testified that they often heard “yelling and screaming” coming from the Lovelace residence. One neighbor testified about the Lovelace’s daughter pounding on the door after they locked her out. Another neighbor complained that Curtis confronted him angrily after he made a noise complaint to the police. A neighbor who confirmed that loud arguments were common in the Lovelace household testified that the loudest voice was Cory’s.

A police detective testified that Cory’s mother told him that Cory had a drinking problem and suffered from bulimia. Cory’s mother denied speaking to the detective. Other witnesses confirmed Cory’s alcohol abuse.

The accusations of murder were based largely on the work of a newly promoted Quincey police detective who was reviewing old cases and became intrigued by the possibility that Cory was murdered. The defense argued that Cory died of natural causes and that the detective was trying to make a name for himself.

Lovelace’s first trial ended in a hung jury in 2016. His second trial began with a new defense team and the assistance of the University of Chicago Exoneration Project.

Prosecution Experts

A number of lay witnesses testified that Cory’s arms were “drawn up by her chest” or that her hands were “near her shoulders” when authorities responded to a 911 call. Because Cory’s hands were elevated a few inches above her body, the prosecution speculated that her hands were laying on a pillow when rigor mortis set in, and that the pillow had been used to suffocate her.

That speculative theory was undermined by prosecution witnesses who disagreed about the degree to which rigor mortis had taken hold of the body. The original investigating detective, for instance, testified that it was still possible to move Cory’s arms, which was consistent with a recent death.

Dr. Jessica Bowman, a pathologist who was not called to testify, performed an autopsy and identified the cause of death as “undetermined.” The coroner then asked Dr. Scott Denton, a forensic pathologist, to review the autopsy report. Dr. Denton expressed the opinion that Cory died of suffocation but said he could not rule out poisoning. The two potential causes of death are so wildly different from each other that the jury may have discounted Dr. Denton’s opinion entirely.

The detective who reopened the case admitted that he tried to get Dr. Bowman to change her autopsy report to reflect that the cause of death was “homicide” rather than “undetermined.” When she refused to do so, he sent emails saying he was “done with Bowman” and began to search for a pathologist who would support his homicide theory. Six pathologists told him that there was no basis for pursuing homicide charges until he found Dr. Jane Turner.

Dr. Turner, a forensic pathologist, testified that she had no doubt that Cory was suffocated with a pillow. She attributed a cut inside Cory’s upper lip to a pillow being pushed against her mouth. She also testified that Cory’s arms would have been at her sides if she had died a natural death. Dr. Turner thought the death may have occurred twelve hours before it was reported to the police.

Cory’s children, however, told the police that they saw Cory standing at the top of the stairs before they left for school. Their statements, made long before any suspicion fell on their father, refuted the theory that Cory died twelve hours before paramedics arrived at the home. Dr. Turner testified that the children “might not be remembering things correctly” when they told the police that they saw their mother alive before they left for school.

A more likely possibility was that Dr. Turner’s opinion about the time of death was mistaken. Presumably, the children would have “correctly” remembered whether their mother was alive or dead when they last saw her. In addition, Dr. Denton reported that the cut inside Cory’s lip was already healing and could not have occurred on the day of her death. The inconsistency between Dr. Turner’s theory and the testimony of the children, as well as Dr. Denton’s report, may have caused the jury to view Dr. Turner as an advocate for the police rather than a neutral witness.

Another forensic pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, testified that Cory had eight “fingernail marks” on her neck. He said the position of her arms when she was found dead was “unnatural for a sleeping person.” Dr. Spitz opined that Cory died of suffocation, although he acknowledged that her death didn’t match the “textbook definition” of homicidal smothering.

New York forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden testified for the prosecution in the first trial, but the prosecutor decided not to have him testify in the retrial.

Defense Experts

Dr. Shaku Teas, a forensic pathologist, testified that Cory died from natural causes brought on by a fatty liver that resulted from chronic alcoholism. She told the jury that suffocation by a pillow causes blood vessels to hemorrhage and there was no evidence of that on Cory’s face. She said the “fingernail marks” that Dr. Spitz identified were actually moles. She believed that Cory died shortly before the death was reported to the police. She did not view the position of Cory’s arms to be significant because they were not “defying gravity.”

Forensic pathologist Dr. William Oliver testified that Cory died from complications of alcohol withdrawal and fatty liver disease. He said the cut inside Cory’s mouth could not have come from being smothered with a pillow because no blood was found in the mouth. He also suggested that the position of Cory’s arms could have been caused by resting on a comforter that was removed by paramedics.

Not Guilty

In the end, the defense witnesses carried the day. After only two hours of deliberation, the jury found Curtis not guilty.

The defense attributes the verdict in part to Curtis Lovelace’s decision to testify. While many defendants wisely conclude that it is better not to face a cross-examination that might elicit harmful testimony, Curtis gave convincing testimony about his innocence.

Given the quick verdict, it seems likely that the jury attached little importance to the testimony of the prosecution’s forensic experts. The jury probably considered the defense experts to be more credible because they did not need to stretch the factual evidence to fit their testimony. In any event, it seems likely that the defense experts helped establish the reasonable doubt that resulted in Curtis Lovelace’s acquittal.