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Defense in Sandra Cantu case is critical of Lodi pathologist

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Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:00 pm

SAN FRANCISCO - Though Melissa Huckaby's attorneys plan to withdraw their motion to exhume Sandra Cantu's body, the prosecution and defense remain on a collision course over the forensic evidence from her autopsy.

The defense is attacking the credibility of the pathologist whose findings will be used to support charges that Melissa Huckaby raped the 8-year-old - an allegation that could bring the death penalty if the one-time Sunday school aide is convicted. Huckaby is scheduled to make her second court appearance today.

At the center of the conflict is San Joaquin County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who has been in the spotlight before.

The 40-year-old neuropathologist, who lives in Lodi, gained national media attention for his research on the damaged brains of dead NFL players.

He is also a government witness in a federal corruption case against his former boss, celebrity pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who has earned millions of dollars investigating high-profile deaths, including those of Elvis Presley and JonBenet Ramsey.

In a phone interview with The Associated Press before a judge issued a gag order in the Huckaby case, Public Defender Peter Fox questioned Omalu's objectivity.

Several attorneys in his office have complained that Omalu's opinions in other homicide cases they were defending were biased toward the prosecution, said Fox, who declined to detail specific cases where defense attorneys have questioned Omalu's work.

Omalu could not comment on Fox's claims because of the gag order, according to a San Joaquin County Sheriff's spokesman.

The coroner's office has not released its report on Sandra's autopsy or announced how she died. But Huckaby's attorneys said in their motion that medical examiners found Sandra had suffered "genital trauma" and that the finding led prosecutors to accuse 28-year-old Huckaby of rape as well as murder.

"It's all based on one person's word," Fox said.

Omalu's former colleagues from his long stint in the coroner's office in Pittsburgh, Pa., described him as a highly intelligent, dedicated pathologist.

"Naturally a defense attorney's job is to attack a doctor because typically victims in homicide cases have died violent deaths," said Mark V. Tranquilli, an Allegheny County deputy district attorney. "His character is among the best."

Omalu has strict personal principles, making sure he promotes his book on his own time and uses his own cell phone. He speaks softly with an accent, generally endearing himself to jurors.

Melissa Huckaby's attorneys argued that if the defense had no chance to examine Sandra's body, Huckaby would have no way to refute the findings on Sandra's alleged injuries. Fox announced this week that the motion would be withdrawn after Omalu told them he had preserved the relevant tissue samples, which defense experts could also test.

Huckaby was arrested on suspicion of Sandra's murder less than a week after farmworkers found the missing Tracy girl's body stuffed in a suitcase in an irrigation pond earlier this month.

Huckaby was charged days later with murder with three special circumstances: kidnapping, lewd or lascivious conduct with a child and rape with a foreign object. A conviction on any of the three special circumstances would make Huckaby eligible for the death penalty. She has not entered a plea.

Experts said that proving a child was raped based only on forensic evidence has advantages and disadvantages for prosecutors.

"Internal trauma can be telling, especially in a girl this age, because we can make the inference she has not had any recent sexual experience, at least not consensual," said Erin Murphy, a criminal law professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

At the same time, genital injuries in children can occur during normal childhood activities such as running and jumping, Murphy said.

Prosecutors will also try to use Sandra's DNA as evidence if they have samples from whatever object they will claim Huckaby used to rape the girl, Murphy said.

Omalu has worked as San Joaquin County's chief medical examiner since 2007.

In the eight years before coming to California, he worked for Wecht simultaneously as a pathologist in the coroner's office and for Wecht's private forensics company.

Wecht is currently facing multiple federal counts of fraud and theft. Prosecutors allege that while county coroner, he used public employees and facilities to conduct examinations for his own business.

Last year, Omalu testified that he examined brains for Wecht's private clients while at the morgue.

It was also at the coroner's office that Omalu examined the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Terry Long, who killed himself by drinking antifreeze.

Omalu found that Long suffered from chronic brain swelling, or "punch-drunk syndrome," caused by frequent blows to the head during football games. Omalu argued the syndrome led to the depression that ended with Long's suicide.

He has since studied the brains of several other former NFL players who died young. He has gained national attention for pushing the league to acknowledge his claim that football-related head injuries can lead to permanent mental damage.

Last year he published a book about it, titled "Play Hard Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death."

Omalu received his medical degree from the University of Nigeria College of Medicine in 1991, according to his California medical license.

He completed his residency at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City and two fellowships in Pittsburgh. He also holds a master's degree in public health and a master's degree in business administration.

He is currently an adjunct professor of pathology at the University of California, Davis.

News-Sentinel staff writer Layla Bohm contributed to this report.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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