December 18, 2011

The Brett Seacat case: Putting an autopsy finding in perspective

If Brett Seacat’s preliminary hearing was any indication, part of his defense at trial will be to dwell on the autopsy on his wife.

If Brett Seacat’s preliminary hearing was any indication, part of his defense at trial will be to dwell on the autopsy on his wife.

During closing arguments at the two-day hearing last month in Kingman, defense attorney Roger Falk emphasized that the coroner couldn’t rule whether Vashti Seacat’s death was a homicide. The coroner, Jaime Oeberst, testified that because of fire damage to Vashti Seacat’s body, she couldn’t conclude whether the death was a homicide or suicide. Falk argued that without a conclusive finding, the case didn’t stand up.

Brett Seacat, 35, a former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy who became a trainer at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center, is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated arson and aggravated child endangerment. Vashti Seacat, 34, who worked in human resources for Cox Communications in Wichita, filed for divorce 16 days before her April 30 death. In a fire at their two-story home in Kingman that morning, Brett Seacat made it out with the couple’s 2- and 4-year-old sons. Investigators found Vashti Seacat’s body and a melted gas can on an upstairs bed. A .44-caliber pistol lay under her body.

Prosecutors say an autopsy finding is only one piece of evidence, that even if “manner of death” is undetermined at the end of the autopsy report, the verdict should depend on consideration of all the evidence, including witness accounts, other physical evidence and statements. The jury’s job is to look at the whole picture.

There’s a key distinction between a coroner’s finding, which is based on a fairly narrow examination of medical evidence, and the other evidence presented in a case, said Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder, one of the area prosecutors who agreed to speak generally about the autopsy issue in the Kingman County case. TV crime dramas tend to exaggerate the scope of a coroner’s examination, Schroeder said. In reality, coroners don’t get to consider all of the other evidence in their findings.

It’s understandable that a coroner sometimes can’t reach a conclusion on how a death occurred because a body is burned or mutilated, Schroeder said.

If it’s possible to have a successful prosecution even when a body is missing, it’s also possible when the manner of death is undetermined, he said.

There is a risk that a juror might fixate on an autopsy report and not fully consider the rest of the evidence, said Paul Morrison, former Kansas attorney general and former Johnson County district attorney.

But an inconclusive autopsy report, although uncommon when murder charges are filed, should not by itself doom a prosecution, Morrison said.

All in context

Kim Parker, chief deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County, said the autopsy finding is only part of the consideration and that “it has to be all taken in context.”

Parker prosecuted a case in 2003 where the defendant, Lynwood Baker, testified that Gerald Fields committed suicide by taking a gun from Baker and pulling the trigger. But Parker brought forth evidence that Fields, a paraplegic, had limited use of his fingers and couldn’t have shot himself that way. Baker was convicted.

Dan Monnat, a prominent Wichita defense attorney, said in a statement that he views autopsy findings this way: “In the American system of justice, jurors are the ones who decide the facts, not the government. If a government coroner concludes that the cause of death was a homicide, the jurors do not have to agree with that conclusion.

“Likewise, if a government coroner concludes that the cause of death is uncertain, the jurors do not have to agree with that conclusion. Either way, jurors are privileged to be independent thinkers and are not required to believe government witnesses, whether their testimony favors the defendant or the state.”

The Seacat case

Part of a defense lawyer’s role is to try to raise doubt in the jurors’ minds. Falk told District Court Judge Larry Solomon at the preliminary hearing last month that the prosecution’s case was a “house of cards” that unravels partly because of the inconclusive autopsy.

The prosecutor in the Seacat case, Assistant Attorney General Travis Harrod, argued that Brett Seacat’s assertion to witnesses that his wife shot herself after setting fire to their home, while their sons slept down the hall, was “ludicrous.” Harrod seemed to be trying to show that a fire was set to destroy evidence, that a suicide note had been faked, that Vashti Seacat had plans for the future and was not suicidal, that she feared her husband.

Falk seemed to be trying to demonstrate that Vashti Seacat became suicidal after dealing with anxiety and depression and the strain of a divorce.

Richard Ney, another well-known Wichita defense attorney who has handled high-profile murder cases, said he would argue in such cases: How can anyone say someone won’t commit suicide? “Trained psychologists can’t even make that judgment,” he said.

Oeberst, the chief medical examiner and district coroner with the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, testified that although Vashti Seacat died from a fatal gunshot, she couldn’t determine whether it was a homicide or suicide because of fire damage to the body. Oeberst said it was impossible to say how close the gun was to Vashti Seacat when it fired. Oeberst’s examination found no soot or injury in Vashti Seacat’s airway that might suggest she had inhaled heated air or smoke.

Oeberst also testified that she had never handled a case where someone started a fire and then shot himself.

Although Falk stressed that Vashti Seacat had dealt with depression, Oeberst testified that there are many depressed people who don’t commit suicide.

After hearing both sides, Solomon ruled that the prosecution met its burden to provide enough evidence to show that the case should go to trial.

Now, it will be up to a jury. A trial date has yet to be set.

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