Did Texas mother smother child? Jury’s tough call

A Lufkin, Texas, jury convicted Vanessa Clark, a 33-year-old mother, of felony child endangerment after Tristan, her 2-month-old son, died while sleeping in bed with Clark and her husband. Another son, Christian, died under the same circumstances in 2009.

“It may not be illegal to sleep with your child,” said prosecutor Dale Summa, but it is illegal to put your child in imminent danger.

After losing one child, prosecutors said, Clark should have known better. It was negligent – criminal, in fact – for Tristan’s parents to sleep with him. The jury agreed.

A colleague of mine found the verdict pathetic.

“Pretty soon,” he said, “the only way to raise a child without going to jail will be to turn the kid over to the state to be raised in a crèche.”

This case raises some disturbing issues, particularly because the pathologist who autopsied Tristan – Dallas Chief Medical Examiner Jody Barnard – could not state a cause of death.

Dr. Barnard is a highly competent pathologist whom I know well and once worked with. He told the court just what I would have said: He could rule out death from most diseases or from injury, but couldn’t eliminate some possibilities such as certain heart-rhythm abnormalities, smothering and external compression.

Barnard said, rightly, that it’s possible for an adult sleeping with a small child to inadvertently cover the baby’s face or roll on it, causing fatal smothering or compression. It’s also possible Tristan was murdered – intentionally suffocated. There’s no way to tell.

A lot of forensic pathologists and other professionals have become convinced that just about all babies found dead in bed with their parents were rolled on and suffocated. I’m glad Dr. Barnard was more conservative in his opinion because I’m not sure that’s why these babies die.

I personally don’t believe sober people roll on and suffocate their babies. People who are drunk or under the influence? Maybe so. But I’d only certify co-sleeping as a cause of death if a child were found dead underneath some part of the body of a bed-sharing adult.

A 2009 article reporting on the dangers of co-sleeping and other risk factors published in the British Medical Journal states: “The proportion of (sudden infant death syndrome) infants found co-sleeping in a bed with parents who had drunk two units or less of alcohol and taken no drugs was no different from that of the random control infants.”

The authors concluded: “In the absence of any evidence that the parent had laid on the infant, from investigation of the scene and circumstances or from postmortem examination, it is a simplistic and unjustified assumption that all unexpected deaths in potentially risky co-sleeping environments are caused by overlaying or entrapment.”

Of course, there’s another ringer in the Clark case: Vanessa Clark had elevated levels of hydrocodone and Xanax in her body when Tristan died.

Does that make her guilty?

I’m glad I’m just a forensic pathologist. I’d hate to be one of the jurors who had to make that decision.

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