The lack of a completed autopsy report led last week to dismissal of a murder charge in the March 30 death of an 18-month-old El Dorado girl. But the situation appears to be temporary.
For one thing, the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, which does autopsies for Butler County, has recently staffed a difficult-to-fill forensic pathologist position, which will help reduce an autopsy backlog, said Jaime Oeberst, district coroner and chief medical examiner.
For another, Butler County Attorney Darrin Devinney said a murder charge could be re-filed after he receives a completed autopsy report with a finding on the cause of death of 18-month-old Jayla Haag.
On Wednesday, Oeberst said that although she couldn’t say when the report might be completed, she is in “the final stages” of her examination.
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Last week, District Judge David Ricke dismissed a first-degree murder charge against Justin Edwards, 29, one of two suspects in what authorities alleged was a homicide involving child abuse. Edwards’ court-appointed lawyer had told the judge that he was still awaiting the autopsy report as he was preparing for an October trial. Edwards was the boyfriend of Jayla’s mother. He has been released on $26,000 bond in other cases involving drug charges. Jayla’s mother, Alyssa Haag, 23, is still facing a first-degree murder charge and is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 29.
In June, Ricke found enough evidence to send both defendants to trial on murder charges. Back then, Ricke said, “The Court does find that the evidence leads to an inference that Justin Edwards would discipline this 18-month-old child by popping her in the mouth and in a manner where at least one witness was concerned he was getting carried away as he did so,” according to a transcript of the preliminary hearing.
The judge also cited evidence that the girl had teeth that had been “traumatically” or forcibly removed “with the roots still intact and damage to her jaw line.” He also noted testimony that Edwards disciplined the toddler by biting her on the cheek.
Oeberst testified in June that although she was awaiting more testing to complete the autopsy report, she could say that Jayla had brain swelling and bleeding behind or around her eyes, in addition to healing injuries.
Oeberst said that from Aug. 1, 2011, to Aug. 1, 2012, the Forensic Science Center had a vacant forensic pathologist position that has now been filled. For a year, there were only two forensic pathologists doing autopsies when a third was needed. During that staffing shortage, she and a second pathologist were working every other weekend to try to keep pace, but “you can only do so much,” she said. The staffing shortage was compounded by a pathologist assistant being deployed overseas.
Part of the staffing challenge, Oeberst said, is the difficulty in finding a forensic pathologist willing to come to Wichita, especially when such specially trained doctors are in short supply. She estimates there are 250 to 300 practicing forensic pathologists nationwide. “So there’s not enough of us.”
Because of the lack of staff, “we’re behind on all our casework … we are slowly moving through the backlog, and we are getting caught up,” Oeberst said. “It’s going to take a little time to get it turned around because it’s not like the cases stop coming.”
Her office does 750 to 800 death examinations a year, not all of which involve full autopsies. The bulk of the deaths involve natural causes, accidents and suicides.
Devinney, who as Butler County attorney is the chief prosecutor, said the judge ultimately found that the cause of Jayla’s death should have been determined at the June hearing and that without it, the charge against Edwards should be dismissed for now. At the preliminary hearing, the judge was required to view evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution.
Ricke found enough evidence then to believe that Edwards “killed Jayla Haag as a result of commission of child abuse on her,” the transcript said. As for the girl’s mother, he found enough evidence to believe that she “recklessly caused or permitted Jayla to be placed in a situation” where the child was injured or endangered.
Because the judge dismissed the murder charge against Edwards “without prejudice,” Devinney can re-file it after the autopsy and any additional investigation are completed.
Devinney said he does not fault Oeberst for the autopsy report not being completed yet. “She must follow scientific method,” he said. “I appreciate her thoroughness. It’s not a failure of the coroner’s office. It’s another step in the process.”
Fictional television crime dramas portray autopsies being wrapped up within 24 hours, when in reality it is a time-consuming, painstaking process, he said.
The case is not going away, he said.
“Whoever’s guilty of killing this child needs to be held accountable.”
Devinney said Jayla had “family that loved her.”
“A crime like this affects the entire community.”