After three weeks of trial, prosecutors Ebrahim Baytieh and Keith Bogardus rested their case today against five former Theo Lacy Jail inmates charged in the Oct. 5, 2006 beating death of John Chamberlain, the Rancho Santa Margarita software engineer they suspected of being a child molester. While their final witness, medical examiner Joseph I. Cohen, provided a comprehensive narrative of the seemingly endless injuries to Chamberlain–there was hardly a spot on his body that wasn't bruised or scraped–it was the photographs that accompanied his testimony that jurors aren't likely to forget.
The images of Chamberlain that Cohen took during what he recalled was a nearly six-hour autopsy, one of the longest he's performed thanks to the sheer amount of trauma he needed to document, bore graphic witness to what Cohen called a “devastating” assault that created injuries similar to what he'd seen in cases involving “high speed automobile crashes” and or a “fall from a great height.” Of Chamberlain's 24 ribs, Cohen added, only three weren't fractured, and several had more than one fracture. The victim died, he concluded, when his collapsed rib cage prevented him from breathing, causing pulmonary arrest and ultimately, a heart attack.
The first photograph jurors saw showed Chamberlain's face, a breathing tube emerging from his mouth. His head appeared to be swollen to twice its normal size with dense, reddish-brown abrasions marring his forehead, marks that were possibly suffered when inmates (including ones who were never identified and therefore aren't currently facing charges) jumped up and down on Chamberlain while he was lying face down. Whatever caused the blows, Cohen testified, was severe enough to cause massive bleeding on the surface of Chamberlain's brain, something that could have been lethal on its own if left untreated.
The next two shots revealed the sides of Chamberlain's face: massive bruises around both eyes, ears swollen and purple. Subsequent photographs showed deep bruises on the side of Chamberlain's torso, the backs of his legs, his buttocks, and especially his back, which was almost completely bruised. Close-up shots of some of the deeper bruises appeared to reveal tennis-shoe type imprints, although the medical examiner couldn't say with certainty what caused them. The only photographs that prosecutors (mercifully) didn't put on the overhead projector concerned the injuries to Chamberlain's rectum, which Cohen testified were made by a long and slender object (such as a pencil, plastic spoon handle or toothpaste tube) being forcibly inserted into his anus.
On their own, Cohen testified, none of the injuries were severe enough to kill Chamberlain, but in their totality, they proved lethal. “There were no skull fractures,” Cohen added. “The mechanism of death in my opinion is asphyxiation due to inability to breathe in air” thanks to “multiple severe blunt impacts.”
Although the autopsy photos have now been booked into evidence, prosecutor Baytieh refused to provide any of them to OC Weekly,
citing the judge's prohibition on any cameras in the courtroom, a
ruling that he believes extends to the release of photographic
evidence. Meanwhile, faced with such a barrage of horrifying images, defense attorneys were uncharacteristically brief in their cross-examination of Cohen. They mostly sought to ascertain whether certain blows their clients are accused of landing on the victim could have contributed to his death. For example, Fred Thiagarajah, attorney for defendant Stephen Carlstrom, who admitted kicking Chamberlain in the buttocks, pointed out that Cohen only found a superficial bruise on that area of the victim's body.
“Is it fair to say that there is no connection between any injuries connected to a kick in the butt and the cause of death?” he asked. “I would say that's fair, Cohen replied.
Shortly before resting his case, Baytieh reminded Cohen that his answer was strictly medical, not legal. Baytieh then provided a hypothetical example where a swift kick to the rear could cause loss of life. “I a guy wants to stab me with a knife and I try to run away and I get this far and a guy kicks me back in, and I get stabbed and die, medically speaking, I didn't die from the kick in the back, right?”
Given that no evidence has surfaced so far indicating that Carlstrom did anything other than kick Chamberlain once, that defendant Miguel Guillen did anything other than slap Chamberlain a few times on the belly (which wasn't bruised) with his shoe, or that defendants Jared Petrovich or Raul Villafana even laid a hand on Chamberlain, it remains unclear how the graphic slideshow will resonate with jurors against anyone other than defendant Garret Aguilar, who by several accounts was punching, kicking and stomping on the victim.
It's also unclear whether Chamberlain stopped breathing before, during, or after Aguilar spent several minutes perched atop a table about 10 feet from the guard tower, waving his arms and yelling “Man down!” for several minutes before the guards, by their own admission, finally stopped watching television, and slowly strolled out to find Chamberlain lying immobile on the floor. However, given Cohen's estimate that the time between the moment Chamberlain stopped breathing and when he suffered his heart attack could have been “in the ballpark” of a few minutes, it certainly seems possible that had guards paid more attention, the attack, if not stopped altogether, wouldn't have caused his death, much less this murder trial, which will resume on Sept. 13.