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Wednesday, May 22, 2013 11:41 am

Tabitha survives, lawyers duel

Prosecution nears end of case

Photos of Tabitha Gee’s head were bad enough.

But CT scans of the toddler’s shattered skull after she was beaten with a tire iron and left for dead were, if anything, worse.

Without blood, hair and skin to get in the way, the images of Tabitha’s skull shown Wednesday to the jury in the murder trial of Christopher Harris were excruciatingly graphic evidence of just how badly the little girl was injured by a tire iron blow to the right side of her head and another to her forehead.

What should have been a continuous arc of skull was instead interrupted near Tabitha’s right ear by a break the shape of a lightning bolt that extended to a sinus, the base of her skull and an orbital bone around her right eye.

“It was a complex fracture – it was very jagged and extended into different directions,” testified Dr. Channing Petrak, a pediatrician who assessed the damage for the jury in the most clinical terms possible with the help of a laser pointer. “You can see multiple fractures here, here and here. There’s a continuing fracture here, and you can tell it’s depressed. This is actually pushing in and onto brain tissue.”

Then there was Tabitha’s cratered forehead, a wound so grievous that a juror covered his eyes with a hand when it was projected onto a courtroom screen earlier in the trial.

“You can call it a ping-pong fracture – it’s actually a dent in the head,” the doctor testified.

The dura, or brain lining, was torn. Swelling to the right side of Tabitha’s brain was so severe that the organ was being pushed to the left side of her skull. Doctors were concerned that further swelling could push her brain downward toward her spinal column.

Surgeons removed the right side of her skull, put it in a freezer and waited for the swelling to go down. It took 17 days, and Tabitha was on a ventilator for the first eight. She was also sedated and intubated.

“At that point, the goal was to keep her quiet and keep her minimally stimulated so she can recover,” Petrak told the jury. “It takes a long time for brain swelling to go down. … There were a few words here and there when I would stop by and see her. Certainly not full sentences.”

Her skull finally made whole by surgeons, Tabitha was released from the hospital 28 days after she was found lying alone in a dark home, just three years old, with her mother, father and three siblings all dead. She had weakness on the left side of her body, Petrak told the jury. How she is doing today isn’t clear.

Judy Stogdell, Tabitha’s grandmother who has sat in the front row throughout the trial, is now the girl’s guardian but has refused to speak with reporters. Petrak told the jury that learning disorders, behavioral problems, even cerebral palsy can result from less-severe damage.

Outside the presence of the jury, defense counsel Daniel Fultz told circuit court judge Scott Drazewski that the defense and prosecution will develop a statement for jurors to apprise them of what long-term damage, if any, Tabitha has suffered.

Prosecution ready to rest

The prosecution is expected to rest its case on Thursday after eleven days of testimony. Reading tea leaves is a cinch compared to trying to read the minds of jurors. But the defense might still be in this game.

There has been no obvious knock-out punch. The hurdles faced by the defense remain largely the same as they were during opening statements. Most damning is the way the defendant acted immediately after the killings of Raymond “Rick” Gee, his wife Ruth and three of the couple’s children with a tire iron in Beason nearly four years ago.

Christopher Harris claims self defense, saying that Dillen Constant, 14, had killed his family, then come after him when he dropped by the home unexpectedly. But an innocent man calls the cops after stumbling onto a massacre. He does not burn his clothing, or throw his shoes and a tire iron over a bridge, or lie repeatedly to detectives even after they have matched his palm print to a bloody print found amid the carnage.

Harris’ lawyers say the defendant will testify, and so an essential truth remains: If the defendant hopes to avoid life in prison, he must deliver a command performance. If Harris does not, it is hard to imagine him ever walking free.

Often mind-numbing testimony by forensics experts has so far helped the defense as much as the prosecution. Save for a blister on his right hand that could have come from most anything, including hours spent cutting brush in the days before the slayings, Harris had no injuries after the killings. The defendant’s DNA wasn’t found in the house, but Dillen’s DNA was found under Rick Gee’s fingernails. Perhaps the biggest hurdle that forensic experts have thrown in front of the defense is a contention that Dillen’s body was moved after he was dead, but the conclusion isn’t necessarily a rock-solid one, given that it came during testimony but never appeared in written reports.

Experts on blood and DNA and crime scene analysis have spent hours saying that so-and-so’s blood was found here and over there we found some DNA from someone else, but no one has knit a cohesive story for the jury. Fultz drove that point home on Wednesday in less than two minutes after Dwayne Morris, an Illinois State Police blood-spatter expert, spent more than two hours on the stand answering questions from assistant attorney general Michael Atterberry, who extracted such observations as drops of blood on steps outside the house suggest that someone was bleeding.

“Logic dictates that blood stains come from people who were injured?” Fultz asked.

“The circulatory system of the human body is a closed system and unless there is a breach to the system, blood could not be expected to be deposited in these amounts,” Morris answered.

“Is there anything about any of your analyses that can tell you who inflicted the wounds, sir?” Fultz inquired.

“No, sir,” the witness answered.

No further questions.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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