The former medical examiner for San Luis Obispo County whose autopsy reports were repeatedly questioned here was the key witness in a Kings County infant murder case this week that resulted in the defendant being set free.
Veronica Brouwer, 40, of Hanford, who was arrested in June and charged with the murder of her 2-month-old daughter, was released from Kings County Jail after a judge ruled Tuesday there was not enough evidence to hold her for trial. She had been in custody without bail for the last six months.
At about 7 p.m. on June 22, Kings County sheriff’s deputies and paramedics were sent to Brouwer’s home on the report of an infant suffering cardiac or respiratory arrest.
But an autopsy performed by Dr. Gary Walter, who contracts forensic medical examination services to Kings and Tulare counties, found the toddler’s cause of death to be blunt-force trauma injuries to her head, the Sheriff’s Department said. Detectives interviewed Brouwer and her husband and then arrested her.
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On Tuesday, a preliminary hearing was held for Brouwer’s case, the first opportunity that attorneys had to present evidence and examine witnesses. In preliminary hearings, a judge decides if enough probable cause exists to order a defendant to stand trial.
Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes said Tuesday that two doctors, one for the prosecution and one for the defense, gave conflicting testimony at a preliminary hearing. Both experts agreed on the cause of death — blunt force trauma — but they disagreed on the manner, which can be natural, homicide, suicide, accidental or undetermined.
While the defense’s pathologist testified to the judge that the infant’s death was definitely not intentional, Walter testified for the prosecution that he could not tell with medical certainty whether the death was intentional or accidental, according to Brouwer’s attorney, James Homola.
Because the burden is on the prosecution to show that a crime most likely occurred, Superior Court Judge Steven Barnes dismissed the murder charge.
Fagundes told The Fresno Bee that the Kings County District Attorney’s Office will review the case and could file charges again.
He played it straight in this case, right down the line.
Defense attorney James Homola, on Dr. Gary Walter’s testimony
The accuracy of Walter’s autopsy reports have been questioned several times in San Luis Obispo County, where he was contracted as the sole forensic medical examiner from 2005 to last August, performing autopsies and testifying about his findings in court. He had a local reputation of making findings that usually favored prosecution.
Walter is named in a current ongoing wrongful death lawsuit in Kings County, and made a disputed ruling in the death of former San Luis Obispo County Jail inmate Andrew Holland. Another of Walter’s findings, that a young woman died of an LSD overdose at a music concert, was corrected shortly after experts told The Tribune “it’s not possible.”
In one SLO County murder case, the accuracy of Walter’s finding that a drowning was a homicide was challenged by defense attorneys when Walter contradicted his own report several times on the stand. The defendant was acquitted in that case.
Walters was arrested last year in San Luis Obispo for driving drunk on the way to an autopsy, and the California Medical Board held a two-day hearing early November to determine whether to suspend, revoke, or continue his medical license. A final decision on his license is expected in early January.
San Luis Obispo County hired a full-time medical examiner in September.
On Wednesday, defense attorney Homola said that a Kings County deputy coroner made the homicide determination in Brouwer’s daughter’s death, not Walter, who only determined the cause. Homola praised Walter’s work and testimony, saying Walter’s testimony that he couldn’t determine the manner with certainty is the reason his client went free.
He added that Walter sought outside medical opinions since the toddler’s autopsy, and listened intently in court Tuesday as the defense’s pathologist testified his differing opinion.
“I’m aware of (Walter’s) situation and what’s been written about him, but he played it straight in this case, right down the line,” Homola said. “I have no complaints about him.”