Court of Criminal Appeals Hears Homicide "Junk Science" Case

Categories: Courts

Courtesy Brian Wice
Wice says it's simple: new law, new facts, new trial.
We don't know how 17-month-old Tristen Rivet died. Neither does the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy.

The problem is, that medical examiner once thought she knew how Rivet died.

Patricia Moore believed the toddler was murdered. And Moore testified to that effect in a Montgomery County court in 1999, when Neal Hampton Robbins was accused of that murder. Jurors also heard medical experts for the defense say that there was no way to determine if it was a homicide. But in the battle of expert witnesses, prosecutors prevailed. Robbins was sentenced to life in prison.

It's understandable how the jurors reached their conclusion.

The Montgomery County prosecutors who handled the case told jurors that "the evidence that you heard from Dr. Moore specifically and compellingly tells you" that Rivet was killed. Moore's testimony was referred to dozens of times in the rebuttal argument.

Prosecutors also denigrated the defense's main medical expert, Bexar County deputy chief medical examiner Robert Bux, as a "hired gun."

They reminded jurors that Bux didn't explain how Rivet died, only that it wasn't a homicide. Clearly, prosecutors indicated, Bux was not objective.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a homicide," prosecutor Robert Bartlett stressed. "Make no bones about it. This is a homicide. You had a competent medical examiner get up there and give you reasons as to why she believed this to be a homicide. There is no overcoming that, and it was not overcome by defense counsel's witnesses."

But here's the rub: in 2007, that "competent medical examiner" re-evaluated her work and drew a different conclusion. Although Moore still found Rivet's death "suspicious," there was no way to determine cause and manner of death. Her findings were changed from "homicide" to "undetermined."

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