This is the eighth post in the series Framing the Guilty, Framing the Innocent. For ease of navigation among the posts, use the Table of Contents.
During the night of 26 September 1988, fifteen-year-old Shandra Charles and her 3-year-old cousin Marcell Taylor died along a narrow dirt trail passing through a dark, overgrown field west of Houston. Each child was stabbed in the same, precise manner: once in the upper left chest, once through the left side of the neck. Marcell Taylor suffered a perforated carotid artery and a perforated jugular vein. Though it would seem impossible, Shandra Charles' neck wound was even more serious. Both her carotid and jugular had been completely severed.
Without immediate medical attention, people cannot long survive a severed carotid. With each beat of the heart, blood spurts from the carotid rather than delivering its oxygen to the brain. The victim loses consciousness within a minute and dies within another.
Six months after Shandra Charles bled out on that lonely dirt trail, hockey goaltender Clint Malarchuk had his carotid artery severed by a skate blade. He instinctively applied pressure to his wound and skated immediately towards his team's trainer. "All I wanted to do was get off the ice," he later explained. "My mother was watching the game on TV, and I didn't want her to see me die."
The photograph below shows just a bit of the blood Malarchuk spilled while trying to keep his mother from seeing him die.
The photograph below shows some of the blood Shandra Charles spilled during the last two minutes of her life.
Clint Malarchuk survived because team trainer Jim Pizzutelli had been an Army medic in Vietnam. Pizzutelli reached into Malarchuk's neck and pinched the carotid closed until doctors could stitch the ends back together.
Jim Pizzutelli was not around to save Shandra Charles. No one was. Of the many police officers who arrived before the paramedics, not one of them attempted to save her. Not one of them applied pressure to either of her wounds. Not one them tried to compress her heart. Not one of them attempted to breathe life into her. It was obvious that she was dead and beyond saving.
Houston Police Patrol Sergeant Donald L. Hamilton was one of those police officers who made no effort to save Shandra Charles. Though he arrived late on the scene, he claimed she was still alive and conscious, but bleeding badly from both her chest and neck. He did not, however, insert his fingers into her neck and pinch closed her severed carotid. He did not even apply pressure to either of her wounds. Instead, he claims he interviewed her, that she responded clearly and precisely, and that she told him that the person who attacked her was "Preston."
Sgt. Hamilton explained all this during his trial testimony, while under oath, while speaking to the jury that was to decide Preston Hughes' fate. In an affidavit prepared shortly before the execution, retired medical examiner Dr. Robert Lloyd White signed an affidavit substantiating the point I had been making for months and months: Shandra Charles could not have provided a dying declaration to anyone. From that affidavit.
[I]t is neither anatomically nor physiologically possible that Ms. Charles could've been conscious for more than 30-60 seconds given the expected rate of blood loss when a common carotid artery is cut. The electric activity in the brain simply stops after even a short interruption in blood flow. ... [I]t is simply not medically feasible that this young woman ... could have spoken to the officers as they claimed.
Dr. White is hardly the only medical professional to explain that people rapidly lapse into unconsciousness after suffering a severed carotid. Various appellate court decisions preserve similar opinions from at least eight medical experts who testified under oath during criminal trials. Of those eight medical experts, each testified that a person would lose consciousness within minutes of experiencing a severed carotid. A summary of their estimates follows.
People v. Mayfield, CA, 1997 – "immediately"
State v. Penley, TN, 2003 – "within seconds"
State v. Henretta, TN, 2009 – "30 seconds"
Cooper v. Brown, CA, 2007 – "within 60 seconds"
People v. De Sarno, NY, 1986 – "60 seconds"
State v. Bonds, TN, 2010 – "a few minutes"
Jefferson v. State, AL, 1984 – "several minutes"
Commonwealth v. Lambert, 2000, PA – "3 minutes"
Police officers, such as Sergeant Hamilton, have long known that they can quickly render people unconscious by use of a carotid control hold. The hold compresses both carotid arteries and thereby prevents blood from reaching the brain. If the hold is properly applied, unconsciousness follows quickly. If the hold is not promptly relaxed, death follows.
In 1982, six years before Shandra Charles allegedly gave her dying declaration, the Los Angeles Police Department restricted the use of choke holds after they led to sixteen deaths in eight years. The deaths summarized below are the only three attributed to insufficient blood to the brain and accompanied by an estimated time of carotid compression:
Robert Cameron died on 20 December 1979 from a carotid control hold maintained for less than 90 seconds.
Luel Marshall died on 3 February 1981 from a carotid control hold maintained for approximately 5 seconds, followed later by a carotid control hold maintained for 2 to 3 seconds.
Robert Cousins died on 12 May 1981 from from a carotid control hold maintained for approximately 20 seconds.
Judo experts also know that opponents can be quickly rendered unconscious by constricting the carotid arteries. From "Deaths Allegedly Caused by the Use of 'Choke Holds' (Shime-Waza)":
The "choke holds" known as shime-waza used in the sport of judo have been taught and used by law enforcement officers to subdue violent suspects. ... If the carotid artery hold is properly applied, unconsciousness occurs in approximately 10 seconds (8-14 seconds).
Police and judo strangle holds deprive the brain of blood by compressing both carotids. Shandra Charles' brain was deprived of blood because way too much of it gushed from her severed carotid. She bled out. She had too little blood to maintain brain function. In medical parlance, she exsanguinated.
An exsanguination study on sheep provides further insight into how long Shandra Charles could have survived after her carotid was severed. The cardiovascular system of sheep is coincidentally similar to that of a human the size of Shandra Charles, at least in terms of blood volume and pumping rate. Sheep are often slaughtered by severing one or both of their carotid arteries. To determine whether the technique is humane, the study monitored the brain function of sheep after their carotids were severed to determine how quickly they succumbed. On average, the sheep who had only one of their carotids severed lost all brain function within 70 seconds.
The jury was never informed that Shandra Charles would have lapsed into unconsciousness soon after her carotid was severed, nor were they informed that she would have died soon after losing consciousness. Instead the jury was told that Shandra Charles could have lived for more than four hours after suffering her injuries. From the trial testimony of Assistant Medical Examiner Robert Jordan, under the tailored questioning of Assistant DA Chuck Noll:
Q. Let me ask you this, Doctor. Would it have been possible, based on her injuries, for her to have been stabbed as early as 8:30 in the evening on September 26th of 1988, if she died from these injuries at 12:58, I believe you said, in the a.m. on the following day? … Can you tell?
A. Not with any certainty.
Q. Okay. Is it difficult to pinpoint times of injuries and times of death when cutting and stabbing injuries are involved?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Is that because -- why is that?
A. The determination of the time of death is difficult, at best. With cutting and stabbing injuries, it is even more difficult because one has to consider the loss of blood and people bleed at different rates from different sharp trauma wounds. One cannot be sure, either, of the amount of medical support the decedent received in the interval from injury to death.
Instead of hearing medical evidence that Shandra Charles died so quickly that she could not have provided anyone with a dying declaration, the jury heard that Shandra Charles could have lived for four and a half hours, from 8:30 PM on Monday to 12:58 AM on Tuesday. I will explain how the prosecutor and his prosecution-friendly witness executed this slight-of-hand and thereby helped execute Preston Hughes.
First, Shandra Charles did not die at 12:58 AM, as Chuck Noll suggested in his hypothetical question. Chuck Noll loved hypothetical questions. They allowed him to solicit answers to questions that misstated the evidence. The witness didn't commit perjury and Noll didn't suborn perjury, because he said "if." He did not say that Shandra Charles died at 12:58 AM; he instructed his witness to assume that Shandra Charles died at 12:58 AM. "If" the jury misunderstood, then that was their problem.
The facts are:
Shandra Charles died shortly before 11:30 PM on a lonely trail crossing a dark, overgrown field.
None of the many police officers to arrive on the scene lifted a finger to save her or revive her.
The paramedics attempted to resuscitate her and rushed her to a nearby hospital.
The hospital refused to admit her and sent her instead, along with the paramedics, to the distant Ben Taub Hospital.
Shandra Charles was declared dead on arrival at Ben Taub at 12:58 AM.
Shandra Charles did not die at 12:58 AM, even though the jury never heard any honest, straightforward medical testimony about her ability to survive her wounds.
Assistant DA Chuck Noll avoided suborning perjury by qualifying his questions with "if". Assistant Medical Examiner Robert Jordan avoided perjuring himself by being conveniently ignorant of the critical facts of the case. He testified that he couldn't be sure how long Shandra Charles lived because he did not know "the amount of medical support the decedent received in the interval from injury to death." Perhaps, he might have reasoned, someone stuck his fingers in her neck and pinched off her severed carotid artery. If someone had done that, she might have lived four and a half hours. She might even be alive today. Right? Who knows?
It seems unlikely that the prosecution could have selected any medical examiner more ignorant of the case than Robert Jordan. Dr. Jordan did not perform the autopsy on Shandra Charles, nor did he perform the autopsy on Marcell Taylor. He was not in the room when either autopsy was conducted. He apparently knew nothing about the case until shortly before trial when, presumably, Chuck Noll prepped him for his testimony. Under cross-examination, Dr. Jordan conceded that he had not even read the autopsy reports until earlier that morning, while sitting in his car.
Not only was Preston Hughes framed by planted evidence, as described in the previous post, he was framed by the intentionally unrevealing, prosecution friendly testimony of a uninformed witness from the Office of the Medical Examiner for Harris County.
I'll not discuss further in this series the many ways in which the State and People of Texas framed Preston Hughes for a murder he did not commit. I discussed the planted eyeglasses and the scientifically unsound testimony of the medical examiner because Larry Swearingen was framed in similar fashions. Scraps of paper were planted near his parents' home and a pantyhose remnant was planted at his trailer. Dr. Joye Carter provided scientifically unsound medical testimony that led to Swearingen's conviction. Perhaps not coincidently, Dr. Carter was, at the time of her testimony, in charge of the Office of the Medical Examiner for Harris County, the same office responsible for the prosecution friendly testimony of Dr. Robert Jordan.
I will discuss Dr. Carter and her role in the framing of Larry Swearingen in the next post.
I will discuss Dr. Carter and her role in the framing of Larry Swearingen in the next post.