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How quickly will you die after this stab wound?

Robert Wone (photo by Mel Barnhart)

Robert Wone (photo by Mel Barnhart)

And perhaps more interestingly, can a cardiac surgeon who answers “only about five or ten seconds” really know this?

Update: A reader has corrected me — this is a bench trial with no jury.  So where you see “juror” please read “the judge.”  Thanks for the correction.  I now wonder whether the judge will find this expert testimony helpful.

Jurors are being asked to consider these questions in a D.C. Superior Court trial charging three men with conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the murder of Robert Wone, an attorney who was stabbed in the chest while spending the night with friends.  According to the defendants’ theory of the case, Wone was killed when an unidentified intruder entered the house on the ground floor, went up the stairs and into Wone’s room on the second floor, stabbed him in the chest several times, and fled, without anyone seeing him (or her).  Prosecutors say that the three defendants know who killed Wone, and that they tampered with the crime scene to impede the investigation.

One argument that the prosecution is making is that Wone took a long time to die, such that he might have lived had his friends called 911 earlier.  No, says the defense; Wone was pretty much dead within seconds after being stabbed, so there was nothing more the defendants could have done to save his life.  Hence, the question for the jury: how long does a stab wound like Wone’s take to kill you?  Does a cardiac surgeon know the answer?  Does a pathologist?  Oh, the headaches that come with being a juror.

Both sides are presenting so-called “experts” (mostly physicians) who offer conflicting testimony about how long it takes to die from a Robert Wone-type stab wound to the chest.  But do any of these doctors really know?

Much of what physicians do, we do without much actual evidence of its efficacy.  We do it because we were told to do it in residency, or because we think it makes sense.  That’s not always a bad thing.  The point is that physicians frequently have to act without the certainty they’d prefer.  This is true for many of the daily questions which doctors face every day in their practice — whether a drug will work, whether a procedure will help, etc.  There’s a lot of uncertainty.

There’s even more uncertainty about the questions attorneys are asking these physician “expert” witnesses to answer in this trial.  Question: given these autopsy reports, do you think the deceased would have survived for five to ten minutes after the wound, or do you think he would have died within seconds?  The doctors can give their opinions, but I wouldn’t pretend that they have any firm knowledge one way or the other.  Trauma, in particular, is a tricky thing to understand.  No two traumatic wounds are the same, few of them are actually studied prospectively and systematically, and patients often defy common expectations about the course of their injuries.  So there’s no way that any physician is going to know with certainty how long Robert Wone survived after he was stabbed.

This doesn’t mean that their opinions would be useless to a jury in a criminal case.  The jurors are asked to listen to the entirety of the prosecution’s argument, and to the entirety of the defense argument, and then decide: has the prosecution proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants are guilty of the crime they’ve been charged with?  They may decide to convict even if they dismiss the physician testimony as a bunch of useless verbiage.

I remember my only experience of being a juror.  We were asked to consider whether the defendant was guilty of driving drunk.  The prosecution and the defense called up a bunch of expert witnesses to testify about nystagmus, the metabolism of alcohol, and whatnot, but for me all of that testimony was useless.  Neither side’s expert witnesses were credible.  But I had no difficulty voting for conviction, because the rest of the prosecutor’s case established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty.  The other jurors seemed to think the same way — we spent a lot of time in the jury room savaging the expert witnesses for both sides.  We all thought the defendant was guilty based on the other evidence and testimony.

We’ll see what happens in the Wone trial, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of jurors in that case end up feeling pretty much the same way about the expert testimony.

2 Comments

  1. k wrote:

    Actually, it’s a bench trial. Eek.

    Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  2. kayvon wrote:

    Yo,

    Agreed. With respect to penetrating STAB wounds to the chest, pts. can die immediately, or be talking to you in the ED with no signs of shock. Stab wounds are very unique, and there really is no way to know when this man died (short of being cut entirley in two). Interestingly, The highest survival rate from resusitative ED thoracotomies is with pts suffering from low energy penetrating trauma to the thorax (i.e. stab wounds).

    Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

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