Withheld Evidence May Prove Dogs, Not Parents, Killed Girl
Dallas Morning News
EMORY, Texas - In November 1989, Debbie Loveless and her common-law husband, John Harvey Miller, were sentenced to life in prison for killing her daughter April.
The Northeast Texas couple told sheriff's deputies the 4-year-old had been mauled by dogs outside their rural home 50 miles east of Dallas. But authorities charged the pair with murder after a pathologist said April died from child abuse.
At the trial, jurors saw photos of a lifeless girl whose body was a grotesque roadmap of cuts, scratches, punctures and mottled bruises. A prosecutor described a horrible death, saying the girl had been cut and poked repeatedly with a hunting knife and beaten with a curling iron.
But five nationally respected forensics experts now say that the state was wrong and that Loveless and Miller were right: April was killed by a rare frenzied dog attack.
"My opinion is that this is not a case of child abuse, unless you want to call it a case of animal abuse of a child," said Charles Petty, who spent 22 years as Dallas County's chief medical examiner and 13 years as director of the county's Rape Crisis and Child Sexual Abuse Center.
A judge agreed and recommended that Loveless and Miller get a new trial. He also criticized prosecutors for withholding evidence.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will decide whether to order a new trial. If not, Loveless and Miller will be freed.
Found lying on ground
Miller, a 46-year-old unemployed construction worker, says he was salvaging wood from an old house down the road on Jan. 4, 1989, while Loveless, 35, was cleaning house.
April often played outside by herself, they say. She had had free run on the property for months. April, who stood 3 feet 5 and weighed about 45 pounds, often played with the family's two dogs as well as a third dog that belonged to a neighbor, the couple say.
Miller and Loveless said that when they realized April wasn't with either of them, they began looking for her. They spotted her under a large pin oak tree, Miller said.
"We looked over and April was laying face-down on the ground with no clothes on," he said during an interview in prison. "She raised up and said `Mommy, Daddy.' All you could see Was little scratches. It wasn't 'til I rolled her over that I saw the gash in her leg."
Doctors later described the "gash" as a gaping hole on the inside of her right thigh that measured four inches by six inches. A large chunk of thigh - muscles, the femoral artery, blood vessels, skin - was simply gone.
April was "essentially morbid" when she arrived at Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, Texas, 35 miles to the southeast, according to the testimony of Dr. Edwin Duncan. In a preoperative report, he noted "puncture wounds, ragged bite marks, abrasions, contusions, lacerations" and bruises on her body.
April died on the operating table.
According to published reports and court testimony, Rains County Sheriff Richard Wilson doubted the dog attack story almost from the start.
Miller and Loveless said that although they told the sheriff about the dogs, he made no attempt to catch them. It is clear from Wilson's testimony that he doubted that the dogs were capable of attacking anyone.
"Every time we would go out there, they would be wagging their tails. Two of them were pretty young pups," he later testified.
Underneath some clothes in a hamper, the investigators found an electric curling iron. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy, V.V. Gonzalez, later testified he believed that it was the weapon used to make the scratches, yet he acknowledged he never measured the width of the curling iron's teeth to see if they corresponded with the scratches.
The curling iron and a knife belonging to Miller were tested for blood. The curling iron was clean, but the knife blade yielded two microscopic spots police said might be blood.
With that, authorities believed they had enough to refute the dog attack story and arrested Miller and Loveless on a felony charge of injury to a child. (The charge would later be changed to murder.)
In his autopsy report dated Jan. 19, Gonzalez wrote: "This 4 year old battered white female child died of massive hemorrhage resulting from the large sliced gaping wound to the right thigh. There are no injuries in the body that would be related to animal bites."
In a trial in October 1989, the most damning testimony came from Gonzalez. He testified that the edges of the wound and its interior were cleanly cut, as with a knife, and didn't resemble the jagged edges one would expect in an animal attack. No autopsy photos were introduced into evidence and the defense was never told they existed.
One of the defense attorneys said later that he took the prosecutor and sheriff at their word when they said the dogs were too small to have killed April.
Among the witnesses subpoenaed by the defense but never called was Ann Oliver, a child protective services specialist with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services.
She said she agreed to feed the dogs after Miller and Loveless were arrested. The day after the arrest, she went to the house with Sheriff Wilson.
"Without apparent provocation, Buddy . . . attacked Amy (April's sister)," Oliver said. "After he was called off, he attacked her again."
Oliver said she told the sheriff that the dogs should be penned and that impressions should be made of their teeth and claws, but he did nothing.
Eventually, defensive attorney Robert Ardis, hired to handle the appeal, got prosecutors to give him the emergency room and autopsy photos. Ardis said when he got the photos, he quickly understood why the state had not wanted the defense to have them.
In one photo in particular, taken prior to the autopsy, pawprints were plainly visible on April's back, he said.
In early 1992, the Ardises showed the photos and medical reports to Charles Odom, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas. As Odom later stated in an affidavit, "Her injuries were the result of an animal attack."
Odom said most of the scratches consisted of "four nearly parallel converging or diverging lines. Domestic canines . . . have four claws on their forefeet and these marks are typical of the scratches that they leave on the skin when they attack."
The thigh wound, he said, "is characteristic of animal attack."
But what of the clean-cut thigh wound described by Gonzalez in his autopsy, a wound he said could only be made with a sharp instrument? Odom said the cuts were made with a knife - a surgeon's scalpel.
The wound Gonzalez saw on the autopsy table had been "altered" by surgeons who cut away ragged skin and dead tissue during surgery, Odom said.
If she is freed, Miller says, "The first thing I want to do is meet the people who have helped me out. . . . "And then I'm going to get out of Texas."
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