Whitney Houston: Questions that must be asked

I have a picture of Dr. Charles Hirsch, chief medical examiner of New York City, in the bathtub. That which should not be seen is hidden by the side of the tub, but he appears to be wearing nothing but a big grin. When I was his student, Dr. Hirsch used that picture to illustrate his lecture on drowning.

Bathtubs aren’t dangerous to competent adults, he said. Babies and toddlers drown in them. People who are severely handicapped or physically frail might if they slip into the water and lack the strength to extricate themselves. Adults who aren’t handicapped don’t drown while bathing unless they’re impaired by drugs or alcohol or rendered suddenly helpless by injury or disease.

The Los Angeles County Coroner says singer Whitney Houston accidentally drowned in a hotel tub. She had mild coronary artery disease and some scarring of her heart. In addition to cocaine and marijuana, small amounts of an anti-anxiety drug, a muscle relaxant and an allergy medicine were found in her body. Reason enough for her to drown, the coroner concluded.

The combination of drugs and natural disease adequately supports the coroner’s determination. But celebrity deaths always cause a public hue and cry, and Houston’s death was no exception.

Nancy Grace – a legal analyst whose cable TV show on CNN and “Headline News” often reviews high-profile deaths – created a stir by saying, “I’d like to know who was around her, who, if anyone gave her drugs ... and who let her slip, or pushed her, underneath that water?”

Grace’s comments won her plenty of criticism from media folks and from Whitney Houston fans, many of whom felt the comments were insensitive and insulting.

I’m no fan of Grace’s show. I’ve watched a few times and find it more sensationalist than informative. But she wasn’t wrong to raise those questions. The coroner and police would not have automatically assumed Houston’s death was innocent. It’s too easy to kill impaired people.

Drowning looks the same regardless of whether the death is a suicide, an accident or a murder. Autopsy evidence of murder by drowning would be in the form of injuries inflicted on a struggling victim.

Even a smaller, weaker person who must ultimately succumb will fight like the devil against a stronger attacker. Babies, the severely handicapped and the chemically impaired can’t. They can be drowned – or suffocated or strangled – without leaving any sign.

I’m a 62-year-old weakling. I can’t lift a 40-pound sack of feed into a grocery cart. But I could kill a strong man who was too intoxicated to react or fight and leave the autopsy pathologist no clue I’d done so.

If Whitney Houston had been helpless – passed out from drugs and disease – could somebody have pushed or held her under the water? Sure.

Could an autopsy prove that or rule it out? Nope.

Absence of proof of homicidal drowning isn’t proof of the absence of homicidal drowning. On the other hand, the inability to disprove murder isn’t, in itself, grounds for reasonable suspicion.

husercj@co.laplata.co.us Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.