Murder charge dismissed in Ala. baby death

The autopsy of an Alabama baby was so badly botched a judge dismissed a murder charge against the mother Thursday.

CARROLLTON, Ala. (AP) âÄî The autopsy of an Alabama baby was so badly botched a judge dismissed a murder charge against the mother Thursday, and the state now plans to review every forensic case by the medical examiner who bungled the procedure. Circuit Judge James Moore threw out the case against Bridget Lee, a 34-year-old church pianist who spent nine months in jail after being charged with her child’s death in 2006. An initial autopsy found that the baby was suffocated, but reviews by six experts concluded the baby was stillborn and no crime occurred. The medical examiner who worked on Lee’s case, Dr. Corinne Stern, now works in Texas, where officials were just learning of the Alabama case. It’s not known exactly how many homicide cases Stern worked on in Alabama, but officials said it could be as many as 100. Lee hugged her attorney and cried after the ruling. “It’s a great day. I’m going to go home and have lunch with my family and just be free,” she said. Lee, who has suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, admitted she committed adultery and became pregnant while married with two children. When the baby arrived stillborn, she did not seek medical help but instead panicked. She placed the newborn in a plastic container and left it for several days in the back of her sport utility vehicle. Prosecutors filed the capital murder charge based on Stern’s autopsy. Lee said she feared being convicted and executed, but prosecutors said they didn’t intend to seek the death penalty. Still, she could have faced life in prison without parole. “I just hope no one is on death row because of an autopsy she did,” Lee said of Stern. Stern was not at the hearing and has not returned telephone calls or an e-mail from The Associated Press. The judge said in 30 years of law practice he had never seen an expert make a mistake so bad. He praised District Attorney Chris McCool for listening to a defense expert who raised the first red flags about the flawed autopsy. “What has happened in this courtroom today is absolutely unprecedented,” said Moore. Police found out about the baby when a couple who had been lined up to adopt the child called authorities. Lee told police what happened, but Stern’s autopsy concluded the baby was suffocated. The body had bruises on the forehead and mouth, she wrote, indicating the use of force. Once Lee’s defense questioned the autopsy, McCool got other experts to review the case. Evidence during the hearing showed six different forensics experts found the baby died of pneumonia caused by an infection and was stillborn. What Stern thought were bruises were actually signs of decomposition. Stern left Alabama in 2006 and is now the chief medical examiner in Laredo, Texas. Attorneys for Lee are considering a lawsuit against her. Alabama’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Kenneth Snell, said in an interview he would review every homicide autopsy Stern performed in during her 16 months in Alabama. He estimated she handled as many as 100 such cases. In 2007, Stern became the medical examiner in Webb County, a Texas border community where drug cartel-related killings have cropped up in recent years. She’s the first medical examiner ever hired in the county, which previously relied on autopsy help from San Antonio officials. Paul Martinez, a spokesman for the county commissioners, said Webb County officials were just hearing of the Alabama accusations, and that no questions had been raised about Stern’s work there.