A reporter's notebook…
Jury hears investigator's interview with Starns
By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
April 18, 2002
Day 3 of the Peggy Sloan Starns murder trial ended with a setback for the defense, as a highly contested witness was allowed to take the stand.
Bill East is an investigator with the attorney general's office. He is, in fact, the person who recommended re-opening the investigation of Angela Schnoor's death and has been active in the new investigation since its beginning.
East interviewed Starns twice in February 2001. On Feb. 26, he interviewed Starns at her home in Baton Rouge, La. The next day, he interviewed her by telephone.
Both interviews were recorded and transcribed. The Feb. 26 interview was played for the jury at the end of the day Wednesday.
Defense lawyers Dan Self, Bill Jacob and Joe Kieronski asked Circuit Judge Larry Roberts not to allow the tapes to be played for the jury because Starns had not been told she was the object of an investigation or advised of her rights.
Roberts' reasoning for denying the request was that Starns had not been charged at the time and was not in custody.
The next problem for the defense was that East was on the state's witness list. On April 4, defense attorneys filed a motion asking that he not be allowed to remain in the courtroom during the course of the trial and hear testimony from other witnesses.
This is called sequestering a witness, and it is the usual procedure in Lauderdale County Circuit Court. For instance, all the witnesses who have testified so far were not present in the courtroom either before or after their testimony.
The practice prevents witnesses from getting "inside knowledge" about whether or not their testimony agrees with that of other witnesses.
The judge denied the motion, citing Rule 615 of "Mississippi Rules of Court" as he agreed with Special Assistant Attorney General Scott Leary that East's presence in the courtroom was vital because he was the lead investigator in the case.
Self renewed his objection outside the presence of the jury after East was sworn in.
The judge denied his motion a second time, and the tape was played on microwave headphones for the jury. The tape was not audible to spectators, and The Meridian Star has asked that a copy of the transcript be made available before the trial reconvenes today.
In the February interview, East says Starns contradicts previous statements she made to medical personnel and others about how Angela was found as well as testimony already offered by other witnesses about whether she asked that no autopsy be performed on Angela Schnoor's body.
Medical experts testify for the prosecution
Earlier in the day, Leary and Assistant District Attorney Lisa Howell presented four expert medical witnesses:
Dr. Mary Case of St. Louis, Mo., a forensic pathologist with expertise in child death;
Dr. LeRoy Riddick of Mobile, Ala., a forensic pathologist who signed off on Angela Schnoor's autopsy report;
Dr. Paul Wilcox of Meridian, who treated Angela Schnoor in the intensive care unit at Meridian Regional Hospital the night she was admitted; and
Dr. Edward Holmes of Meridian, a pulmonologist who treated Angela the night before she died.
The first two, Case and Riddick, were asked to give their opinions about what caused Angela's death. Both agreed that she died of asphyxia by homicide, and said that a bruise on the little girl's nose could not have been caused by CPR.
The second two, Wilcox and Holmes, testified that Angela had major neurological damage when she was admitted and said fluid in her lungs was a result of the brain injury and medical treatment.
In cross-examination, Jacob pointed out that Wilcox had signed a document listing his final diagnosis as "accidental death from asphyxiation due to aspiration" and remarking that there was "no overt evidence of foul play."
Wilcox said that diagnosis does not reflect his current opinion.
Leary said Wilcox's notations were presented out of context and forced more of the document in question into evidence.
In other passages, Wilcox remarks that the coroner was notified in hope that more information could be obtained and that it seemed to the primary physicians that there was no specific single diagnosis to account for Angela's death.
Defense hints at alternate theory
The four medical witnesses were cross-examined by defense attorney Bill Jacob, who challenged their opinions based on the fact that no slides were made during the autopsy and no microscopic analysis was done.
The defense's theory is that Angela was not well in the days before she died and had one or more seizures as she slept on the couch at her father's house. This caused Angela to aspirate, or eject gastric fluid and/or vomit into her lungs, damaging their ability to deliver oxygen to the brain.
Jacob implied that the question cannot be answered without microscopic analysis. All the doctors disagreed with him.
He also said other disorders like Reyes Syndrome, Pompei's Disease, encephalitis and certain congenital defects cannot be ruled out without slide analysis. All the doctors disagreed with him.
One more medical expert is expected to testify for the prosecution, Dr. Gary Cumberland of Pensacola, Fla., who performed the autopsy on Angela in 1986.
Peggy Sloan Starns is standing trial for murder in Lauderdale County Circuit Court. She is accused of suffocating her step-daughter, Angela Schnoor, in July 1984. She was indicted in July 2001 after the child's natural mother, Debbie Boswell, convinced the attorney general's office to re-open the case.