Even after 15 years and hundreds of autopsies, forensic pathologist Dr Eslyn McDonald-Burris is still traumatised by her work in the murder case of six-year-old Sean Luke.
McDonald-Burris made the admission yesterday, as she took the witness stand in the virtual judge-alone trial of Akeel Mitchell and Richard Chatoo, who are accused of committing the crime as teenagers.
Responding to whether she had seen media reports on the start of the case, McDonald-Burris said: “To be honest with you, I got depressed as I had to live it all over again as a pathologist.”
“I did not realise it would have such a negative effect on me,” she added.
Pressed further by Mitchell’s defence attorney Mario Merritt, McDonald-Burris denied that her emotions negatively impacted her work on the case.
“I was psychologically traumatised but I was not distracted. I had a job to do,” McDonald-Burris said.
During her testimony, McDonald-Burris said after an external and internal examination of Luke’s decomposing body, she concluded that he died of internal abdominal and chest injuries caused by a 54-cm sugarcane stalk that was inserted through his anus.
“It was up through the anus and rectum; through the bladder, pelvic and abdominal cavities; perforating the bowels, stomach and diaphragm; entering the chest cavity; perforating the oesophagus and pericardial sac and causing lacerations to heart and right lung; ending at the upper border of the chest cavity near the collarbone,” she explained.
She suggested that moderate force was used.
McDonald-Burris also found bruises on Luke’s neck and chin, which she suggested may have been caused by pressure with an object or ligature such as a hand, cord or shoelace.
McDonald-Burris suggested that from her external and internal examination, mild to moderate pressure was applied.
“I think the pressure that was applied was temporary and was done to incapacitate the deceased,” she said.
McDonald-Burris was also presented with the findings of her colleague Prof Hubert Daisley, who performed a second autopsy on Luke’s body and concluded that he died from strangulation.
“Oh Lord,” McDonald-Burris said when Daisley’s name was first mentioned by Merritt.
“I did not consider that as a cause of death because from the autopsy, the chest and abdominal injuries were overwhelming,” she said as she was pressed on why she excluded strangulation.
McDonald-Burris also noted that despite the extent of the internal injuries, Luke would have survived for approximately 10 to 30 minutes before he succumbed.
“I do not think death was instantaneous,” she said.
McDonald-Burris was also quizzed about her testimony during the preliminary inquiry of the case, in which she estimated that Luke was killed between 24 and 36 hours of her autopsy based on rate of decomposition of his body, which was found covered in maggots and oozing fluids from its orifices.
Luke went missing on the evening of March 26, 2006 and his body was found in an abandoned sugarcane field near his home at Orange Valley Road, Couva, two days later. McDonald-Burris performed the post-mortem within hours of the discovery.
McDonald-Burris noted that when she testified previously, she prefaced her estimate with the words “at least.”
While being questioned by Merritt, McDonald-Burris admitted that Luke had a blood alcohol level of 38 microgrammes of alcohol per every 100 millilitres of blood.
While McDonald-Burris said that the legal limit for driving was 80 microgrammes, she speculated over the source of the reading, as she claimed that she was not a toxicologist.
Although she suggested that it could have been caused by decomposition, or if Luke had been administered cough syrup before his death, she admitted that ingestion was more likely.
McDonald-Burris also testified that from her observations, Luke was not the victim of protracted sexual abuse.
“I formed the opinion that the deceased probably was not someone who had been subject to repeated events or episodes of sexual activity via the anus,” she said, as she noted that she took swabs for DNA testing.
McDonald-Burris was also asked if Luke was lying down or bent over when the injuries were inflicted. She said she could not speculate.
“I am not sure that the injuries have any relationship with the position of the body,” she said.
During yesterday’s hearing, State prosecutors also tendered the evidence of the 20th witness, a police officer, who testified during pre-trial applications in the case and whose evidence is uncontested.
Mitchell is also being represented by Kirby Joseph and Randall Raphael, while Evans Welch, Kelston Pope and Gabriel Hernandez are representing Chatoo.
Sabrina Dougdeen-Jaglal, Anju Bhola and Sophia Sandy-Smith are prosecuting.
The trial is expected to resume tomorrow.