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Patterson Murder Trial, Oct. 26, 2017

Pathologist rules death by asphyxiation


EDINBURG – Wednesday’s testimony given by Hidalgo County Chief Forensic Pathologist Nora Jean Farley finally laid to rest 96-year-old “Marty” Knell’s cause of death: He was smothered to death. What instrument was used to kill him, Farley couldn’t say.

To say that this county’s chief forensic pathologist has more than likely seen it all would probably be a fair assessment, given the fact that she testified as it currently stands, she has performed “close to 4,000 autopsies.”

Indelicately put, that’s a lot of dead bodies that have passed by Farley’s all-seeing eyes and telling microscope over a forensic career that has spanned 20 years.

Before Farley was called to the witness stand Wednesday (Oct. 25), Patterson’s defense team was already objecting to matters concerning the autopsy that Farley had undertaken during her forensic examination of the decedent’s body Aug. 27, 2015; the day after Patterson’s arrest, and two days after the murder defendant’s self-confessed accomplice to the crime, Angel Mario Garza, was arrested.

As expected, Attorney Rene (Ponytail) Flores was taking the lead with regard to Farley’s testimony. Among Patterson’s four high-priced criminal defense attorneys (five if you include the female appellate attorney already working the case should the jury find the PSJA grad guilty of capital murder), Flores is considered the medical expert, per se. He is the one who has been trying to float the idea throughout the trial that Knell’s death was the result of “cardiac arrest.” Every paramedic who has taken the witness stand so far during this five-week trial, including one McAllen fireman, has been asked the same question, courtesy of Flores: When you arrived at “Marty” Knell’s home the morning of his “death,” Jan. 28, 2015, would you agree that all signs showed death by cardiac arrest?

All of the witnesses answered yes, based on what they saw at the scene. The victim was 96 years old, had chronic heart problems, and according to the caregiver, he had simply stopped breathing. That testimony, however, was prior to Farley’s forensic autopsy approximately seven months after his murder, almost to the day. It was six months after Knell’s caregiver, Celestina Mascorro, went to visit law enforcement to tell them that Knell’s death was a homicide. Cardiac arrest, in and of itself, had nothing to do with it.

Prior to Farley taking the stand Wednesday, however, Flores was already objecting to the autopsy photos that the state wanted to show the jury, saying they would prove “prejudicial” (the graphic photos would unfairly bias the jury against the defendant).

Outside the presence of the jury, State District Judge Noe Gonzalez asked Dr. Farley to explain exactly what the autopsy photos would indicate. She explained what each photo represented as the judge handed them to her one-by-one. This photo shows ante-mortem (before death) blunt-force injuries vs. post-mortem (after death) injuries, said Farley. This photo shows blood hemorrhaging not consistent with hemorrhaging that would have been caused by CPR or other live-saving means, she said.

By the time emergency personnel had arrived at the Knell home the morning of Jan. 28, 2015, the murder victim had already been dead for approximately 45 minutes, but the paramedics didn’t know that, so they began efforts to revive him. After the passage of so much time, however, there was no way Knell was going to be brought back to life. (Still, Patterson showed up at Knell’s house with a Do-Not-Resuscitate order in hand, demanding that efforts to revive him be stopped, which they were after the lead paramedic and law enforcement perused the document and validated its authenticity).

While Dr. Farley was describing each photo for the judge, Attorney Flores asked her if she had personally taken each of the photos.

“It wouldn’t (have mattered),” said the forensic pathologist matter-of-factly, because if she hadn’t taken them personally – I can’t always handle a camera if my hands are busy – “(the photos) would have been taken under my direction.”

After Dr. Farley finished defining for the court the meaning of the autopsy photos, Judge Gonzalez over-ruled Flores’s objections, and said the photos would be admitted into evidence, based on their “probative value” (evidence that is sufficiently useful to prove something important in a trial). Flores’s claim of prejudice does not outweigh the autopsy photos’ probative value, said the judge.

As expected, the photos were not for the faint of heart, which is why The Advance News’ camera was turned off as the photos were placed on the light projector and then depicted on two walls of the courtroom for all to see. Even the dead are worthy of dignity.

The first photo showed Knell’s coffin being exhumed from his burial site at Valley Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Mission Aug. 27, 2015. Other photos showed “chain of custody” as his body was delivered to the county morgue where Farley and her staff were waiting. The plan, which worked, was to exhume Knell’s body in the morning, conduct the forensic autopsy, and then re-inter him the same day.

The coffin was opened, and jurors got their first glimpse of the victim as he lay in his suit, not so badly decomposed even though he had been dead for approximately seven months. The fact that Knell had been embalmed was actually helpful, said Farley, because the process helps preserve the internal organs.

The photos that followed were graphic in detail, but none of the jurors (12 plus two remaining alternates) turned away from them as Dr. Farley explained the forensic autopsy process, which begins with an examination of the body’s exterior, front and back, and then moves beneath the surface of the skin to examine soft tissue, bones, muscle, internal organs, and signs of blood hemorrhaging.

As each photo appeared on the light projector, the accused murderess, Monica Melissa (Palacios) Patterson, looked at it and then busily scribbled notes on a legal pad. Her face showed no signs of emotion, even when the body of Knell lying in a state of repose first appeared on the projector screen.

Before the photos were shown that depicted Knell’s internal anatomy, Farley said that bruising on his outer body, especially near the right clavicle caused her to make note of the injury as “very suspicious.”

Also, there was blood seepage into his soft tissue and bone marrow that would indicate that blunt-force trauma had occurred before his heart had stopped beating. Plus, he had two fractured ribs (the 3rd and 4th) that were not consistent with life-saving measures (CPR, etc.).

Farley testified that she saw no signs of an acute heart attack (Myocardial Infarction) while examining the murder victim. In fact, for a man who was 96 years old when he died, “Marty” Knell had relatively little heart-valve blockage.

Farley’s final forensic autopsy ruling (medical opinion): Asphyxiation by Suffocation.

When state prosecutors “passed” the witness to the defense, there came a first in this long-winded trial:

“No questions, Your Honor,” said Flores; leading to speculation among some court observers that when it’s time for Patterson’s defense team to put their own witnesses on the stand, after the state rests its case, it will have found its own hired-gun forensic pathologist to testify under oath that Farley’s medical opinion is in dispute.

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