07/01/05 — Precious died from asphyxiation

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Precious died from asphyxiation

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on July 1, 2005 1:45 PM

Precious Whitfield died from asphyxiation, said the medical examiner who performed an autopsy on her body.

Dr. Kenneth Snell testified Thursday in the first-degree murder trial of Eric Lane, who is accused of kidnapping, raping and killing the 5-year-old girl more than three years ago.

Snell showed the jury 16 photos from the autopsy and described his findings.

Precious was still alive when she was bound with duct tape and placed inside a garbage bag, Snell said. He said evidence indicated she may have tried to free herself before losing consciousness.

Lane's trial was to continue today in Wayne County Superior Court. The prosecution expects to rest its case as soon as Tuesday. Court was to adjourn today about 1 p.m. No court will be held Monday because of the Independence Day holiday.

Snell said Precious would have lost consciousness in less than a minute and probably died within five minutes of being tied up in the trash bag.

The jury had previously seen photos taken when the Wayne County Sheriff's Office recovered Precious' body under a bridge on Airport Road, but the autopsy photos gave more detailed evidence of bruises, cuts and abrasions.

At least two jurors seemed to have trouble with viewing the graphic images. One glanced quickly at each photo, then turned his eyes down as Snell described it.

Two photos showed a milky substance on Precious' face that Snell identified as vomit. It was also found in the garbage bag and in her lungs. That shows that she was alive when the bag was put over her head and that she threw up and inhaled some of the fluid, he said.

The medical examiner also found a tear in the garbage bag that seemed to have been made by her right elbow, he said. "But even if she did struggle to be free, she would not have been able to do so because the tape was too tightly wrapped."

On cross examination, Glenn Barfield, one of Lane's lawyers, asked if Precious had been conscious when her injuries occurred. Snell answered that the girl had been alive at the point, but there is no way to determine how aware she was.

Barfield also questioned whether the tear in the bag could have been made if it had been dropped while transporting the girl's body.

Perhaps, Snell said, but then he would have expected to see some bruising on Precious' elbow.

The photos were projected on a screen, visible to the jury and about half the courtroom, but not the defense table. Lane hung his head during part of Snell's testimony, then stared ahead with no display of emotion.

Precious' mother, Michelle, was not in the courtroom during the autopsy testimony. She returned as State Bureau of Investigation agents began to testify.

Joy Petzlea, a latent evidence specialist, said that she had checked the white garbage bag, the tape, a blue tarp and a Diet Pepsi can for fingerprints, but she didn't even find partial prints sufficient to make a match.

Assistant District Attorney Terry Light asked if that could be explained by the killer wearing gloves. Lane's statement to the sheriff's investigators mentioned wearing two pairs of gloves.

Ms. Petzlea said that was possible. She also noted that some people have unusually dry fingers and do not leave many prints. Fingerprints could have also been cleaned or washed away, she added.

Barfield asked if delays in the SBI's testing could have caused some latent prints to disappear. The lab didn't examine the articles for 19 months after it received them.

Ms. Petzlea conceded that the oils and perspiration that cause fingerprints could have dried up and diminished during the delay.

Suzi Barker, a body fluid expert, tested clothing, bedding and carpeting seized from Lane's home for Precious' blood. But the only two stains found were determined by DNA testing to be Lane's blood and aren't believed to be related to the death.

Ms. Barker also examined the girl's clothing and a sexual-assault kit for signs of Lane's semen, but results were negative.

Forensic chemist John Bendure told the jury about his examination of the garbage bag and two other bags that were seized from Lane's home. All three bags are white with red drawstrings, made of the same material and having the same dimensions. He could not prove that the bags came from the same box, though.