Pathologist: Doctors unsure of what caused death of Army officer's wife
December 18, 2003
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Four months after a U.S. Army major’s wife was found naked beneath a highway bridge, forensic pathologists have been unable to agree what caused her death, a doctor testified Tuesday.
Patricia Ann Hart, 53, wife of Maj. Richard Hart, clearly suffered blunt force injuries to her head and body, although how those blows were given is unclear, said Navy Capt. Steven Robinson, the Okinawa-based regional medical examiner.
Robinson, who performed an autopsy on the body Aug. 13 at the Yongsan mortuary, spoke during the second day of testimony in Hart’s Article 32 hearing. Hart, 45, is charged with murder, two counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of assault and adultery.
An Article 32 hearing is roughly comparable to a grand jury hearing.
Hart also was charged Tuesday with disobeying a superior officer’s direct order for failing to give handwriting samples as directed by Criminal Investigation Command (known as CID) agents.
The autopsy report, which has yet to be completed, could be key in determining whether Hart will face a manslaughter or murder charge. Manslaughter generally is defined as slaying or killing without premeditation; government prosecutors have contended strangling would indicate premeditation.
Prosecutors allege Hart strangled and bludgeoned his wife but testimony threw doubt on Patricia Hart’s neck injury and a piece of cord that CID agents say might have been used.
Robinson said marks on her neck could have been anything from a minor wound to a skin fold; an examination showed underlying layers of skin had no damage. Strangulation could not be ruled out, however, and the case has been forwarded to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., Robinson said.
The agency is doing an “ongoing consultative review,” Robinson said, adding that he did not know when it would be complete.
Investigators seized dozens of cords — from electrical appliance cords to curtain cords — from Hart’s Itaewon apartment. CID agents also found a cord in Hart’s pocket after he was arrested on Aug. 12.
During a monitored Sept. 27 phone call with his daughter in the United States, Hart said he took the cord from a South Korean police station to strangle himself. Before that phone call, a CID agent told Hart’s daughter law that officers found him with a cord and that it may have caused her mother’s death, said Hart’s attorney, Capt. James Culp.
A CID agent and one of the prosecuting attorneys was with Allison Hart when she received the phone call and had let her read a three-page agent’s report, testimony showed.
CID Special Agent Brian Coyt, the lead agent in the case, said Tuesday during telephoned testimony that he did not remember if he told daughter Allison Hart about the cord and another piece of evidence: a bag containing a broken drinking glass and possible human hair. “To be honest, sir, I cannot remember,” Coyt said.
After Culp called the cord the prosecution’s “linchpin” evidence of premeditated murder, Coyt acknowledged agents initially thought it to be a potential murder weapon.
The cord in Hart’s pocket was taken to Patricia Hart’s autopsy, where it was held close to her to see if it could have caused a neck injury. Culp showed CID Special Agent Rocky Burson a photograph of the cord and Patricia Hart’s body.
The autopsy photos were shown only to the witnesses, attorneys and the hearing’s presiding officer.
Culp asked if it would be a critical judgment error to bring the cord into the autopsy room since DNA could be mistakenly transferred from the body to the cord.
“If it was the same cord I would say it’s not a good thing,” said Burson, who has investigated homicides for 10 years. “It’s not practice — there is a chance of cross contamination.”
But Robinson said measures were taken to ensure the cord did not touch the body.
“She [an agent] held it close but not touching the skin,” Robinson said, adding that it was a practice he had seen before in strangulation cases.
Toxicology reports show Patricia Hart had traces of over-the-counter cold medicine in her system but not at lethal levels. Suicide is not a probable cause of death, but neither are natural causes, Robinson said. The woman had bruises on her face and near her elbows of both arms, injuries Robinson said he believed occurred before her death.
Patricia Hart also sustained broken ribs and a spinal injury from being thrown off the bridge, Robinson said. But the head injury “caused us to suspect she was involved in an altercation. We cannot opine if she was an aggressor or defender.”
Testimony from Hart’s daughter Monday outlined a family marred by physically violent confrontations. Hart had been charged previously with assault, she testified, including in December 2002 when he punched Allison Hart, 19, in the nose after an argument over a lost cell phone.
Charlynn Blanchard, Hart’s sister, testified Tuesday that Patricia Hart was erratic, with frequent mood swings and flashes of temper. Patricia Hart attacked her during a visit to Fort Lewis, Wash., and claimed Blanchard broke her finger, Blanchard testified.
Hart, who has been at the Camp Humphreys confinement facility since August, tried to commit suicide in late October with a pair of plastic handcuffs, testimony showed.
A tooth filling was found in a blue bowl in Hart’s apartment after his wife’s death. When asked by Culp if the filling could have been knocked out by a blow, Capt. So B. Choi, of the Camp Humphreys dental clinic, said the filling was old and could not confirm if a punch would knock it out.
Hart told police after his arrest that he and his wife argued Aug. 9 and he punched her. A CID agent testified Monday that Hart felt his wife’s death was his fault. But Hart’s defense team maintains it didn’t constitute premeditated murder.
An Article 32 hearing is held to determine what charges, if any, the investigating officer will recommend to the convening authority. If charges are recommended, a court-martial will be held.
The hearing has been postponed by defense request until 10:30 a.m. Monday.