|the 1940 mystery writer||
Celebrating the skeptic
_On Sunday morning, July 9, 1989, Patricia Stallings of St. Louis drove her two-month-old son to the emergency room. Little Ryan could keep nothing down, and had vomited up his evening feeding two days before although he’d seemed fine on the Saturday in between. Now he was lethargic and breathing with difficulty. Patricia set out for Children’s Hospital, but she was understandably distressed and a wrong turn put her at Cardinal Glennon Hospital instead. There, the suspicious staff performed blood tests and found high levels of ethylene glycol (anti-freeze) in Ryan’s system, confirmed by two independent outside laboratories. The treating physician signed an affidavit stating he believed the infant to have been deliberately poisoned, and when Ryan was released a week later, he went into foster care.
Little Ryan Stallings
_Patricia was allowed supervised visitation. On her last visit, September 1, she fed Ryan a bottle, and he was returned to the hospital on September 4 with the same symptoms.
The next day, Patricia was arrested. Only when she reached the police station was she informed her son was dead. The case put together by prosecutor George B. McElroy III seemed watertight:
The Stallings family with David
_When Patricia was arrested, she was four months pregnant with their second child. David Jr. was born in February 1990 with his mother in prison awaiting trial and he was placed immediately into foster care. But little David too proved to be a sickly child, and at the age of two months he was diagnosed with methylmalonic acidemia. MMA is a genetic disorder, so rare only 1 in 48,000 infants are born with it. It’s a metabolic syndrome, hindering the body’s ability to digest proteins (such as infant formula) and which produces poisonous toxins in the system. And being genetic, MMA runs in families. David’s diagnosis meant there was a one-in-four chance that Ryan had suffered from MMA, as well.
This twist seemed to bother the prosecution more than Patricia’s attorney, a family friend who took the case because no other attorney seemed interested in touching it, and who had a biochemistry degree, as well. Experts explained to prosecutor McElroy that even if Ryan had had MMA, that wouldn’t have caused such high levels of ethylene glycol in his blood, nor the crystals in his brain, nor the anti-freeze in the bottle. The case remained strong despite the MMA diagnosis, and in February 1991, a year and a half after Ryan’s death and a year after David’s birth, Patricia was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
Everyone was satisfied, except for one skeptic: the prosecutor.
All that equipment, and they still got it wrong
_In McElroy’s opinion, Patricia’s defense attorney hadn’t put up much of a fight despite being a family friend. He’d produced no expert witnesses, he hadn’t challenged the lab results, he hadn’t contacted lab personnel, and instead of building a case on her behalf, he’d merely attempted to discuss his own theory with the jury, which of course the judge could not permit. The case and conviction disturbed McElroy and he decided to investigate it himself.
McElroy contacted the St. Louis University lab, where he spoke with Dr. James Shoemaker, a lower-level scientist who’d performed an additional round of testing on Ryan’s blood. Shoemaker informed McElroy that Ryan indeed had suffered from MMA. In addition, Shoemaker said he’d only found a trace of ethylene glycol in Ryan’s blood, although his testing round was performed months after the infant’s death and the toxin might have broken down into other substances over time. McElroy contacted Patricia’s defense attorney and reported Shoemaker’s findings to him, in what can only be considered an invitation to reopen or appeal the case.
The defense attorney was surprised at the news. But he declined the invitation.
Another skeptic who became interested in the Stallings case was Dr. William S. Sly, St. Louis University’s Chairman of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He authorized Shoemaker to perform further testing on samples of Ryan’s blood drawn before his death. What Shoemaker found this time blew the case wide open.
He drank how much?
_That wasn’t ethylene glycol. It was proprionic acid, which has a similar retention time. But it’s often produced by the malfunctioning systems of MMA patients and the graphical peaks were distinctly different. As well, to have 911 micrograms of ethylene glycol in his system, Ryan would have had to drink 80 gallons of anti-freeze.
This time, McElroy, Sly, and Shoemaker looked to Yale University’s genetics experts for confirmation of their findings. Dr. Piero Rinaldo found no ethylene glycol either in Ryan’s blood or the baby bottle, which might have been contaminated by sterilization equipment. Far worse, the crystals in Ryan’s brain were caused not by anti-freeze but by ethanol, part of the treatment he received at Cardinal Glennon Hospital to counter his supposed ethylene glycol poisoning, treatment utterly wrong for an MMA patient. The hospital and professional laboratories didn’t save his life but hastened his death.
As an experiment, Shoemaker sent blood samples containing proprionic acid to seven different nationally-recognized laboratories. Three of them misidentified it as ethylene glycol.
McElroy, the prosecutor, filed the motion requesting a new trial for Patricia Stallings, based upon the evidence he and the other skeptics uncovered. Her name was cleared in September 1991 and she regained full custody of her second son, David Jr.
In forensics, the skeptic holds a special place of both importance and difficulty, importance because of the delicate balance between justice for the victim and the rights of the accused, and difficulty because increasingly often the skeptic is faced with stacks of scientific findings and test results that defy contradiction. So when a skeptic steps forward during a murder trial, he or she particularly deserves to be heard.