The Tennessean

Sunday, 10/22/06 and Monday, 10/23/06

Suspicion adds horror to father's grief for his baby
He soon would lose much more than his cherished son


By LEON ALLIGOOD

Part One
MANCHESTER, Tenn. — Last winter, three days before he was to go on trial for the shaking death of his infant son, Andy Houser was summoned to his lawyer's office.

"What do they want now?" he thought to himself.

Houser's first-degree murder trial, postponed on three previous occasions, was set to begin Feb. 27.

There would be no more delays. A panel of the young man's Coffee County peers would decide whether the former factory worker took the life of 10-week-old William Ethan Houser on June 3, 2003.
Andy Houser
Andy Houser outside the Coffee County Courthouse
On that February day, Andy Houser had been a murder defendant for nearly two years. The allegation had already cost him heavily: his marriage dissolved, a hoped-for career in law enforcement evaporated, numerous friends abandoned him and strangers accusingly stared at him. And his son was dead, a victim of shaken baby syndrome, police said.

Houser knew life could get worse. In three days, prosecutors planned to spell out their explanation of how Ethan died at the hands of the father. A forensic pathologist would testify that Ethan's small brain was bruised on both sides and that clotted blood was present, a sign of fresh injury. In addition, tiny blood vessels on the surface of the baby's right eye had ruptured. Both are telltale signs of a shaken baby.

In suspicious deaths of infants, medical examiners look for these signs. Cops ask about them. Prosecutors make cases based on what the brain tells medical professionals.

But there are often no witnesses, so the mystery unfolds on the autopsy table and through the lens of a microscope. A small corpse speaks. A medical examiner listens.

In Andy Houser's case, two medical examiners explored the remains of little Ethan. Each issued life-changing opinions.

Crystal and Ethan
"How do you feel?" defense attorney Robert Carter asked when Houser arrived at his Tullahoma office that day. Co-counsel William Bullock looked on.

The young man was in no mood for games. "Do you have any Irish blood in you?" Carter continued.

Then he handed his puzzled client a piece of paper, a fax from the state medical examiner's office.

Near the top, in capital letters, were three powerful words, whose force still reverberate strongly in Coffee County: "Amended Autopsy Report."

"Merry Christmas," Bullock said.

Anticipation and loss
Ethan Houser was born March 26, 2003, at Middle Tennessee Medical Center in Murfreesboro. He had 10 fingers, 10 toes, no visible abnormalities, was alert and squalled. Other than a Caesarean birth, he came into the world in the usual way.

To his parents, Andy, 25, and Crystal, 23, the little boy was the perfect answer to their prayers.

Two years earlier, in July 2001, their first child, Jonathan Hunter Houser, was born with a chromosome disorder called trisomy 18. The little one was not long for this world.

Born with a hole in his heart and other abnormalities, Jonathan's status was terminal from his first breath. On the fifth day, the young parents approved the removal of life support, and the baby died in his mother's arms about an hour later. A few months later Crystal became pregnant again, and again the couple rejoiced, but in the first trimester she miscarried. The loss was devastating.

Now living in Murfreesboro, where she goes to college, Crystal remembered those days with much sadness. She recalled how she had "wanted three kids, and that's how I saw my life."

Having lost two babies, she said they wondered what could be wrong. Were they being punished? Was God mad at them? Were they just not meant to be parents?

Then Crystal became pregnant a third time.

"All right, finally," Andy Houser remembered thinking.

For nine months the father and mother waited patiently, cautiously. "I panicked the whole time I was pregnant. I feared for genetics," the young woman said.

"You just don't think, and I know it's probably wrong of me to think or say, but God couldn't do it to you again."

Could he?

Last four days
Ethan Houser's short life spanned 69 days. For 65 of them, according to his parents, other family members and his medical records, the little boy thrived.

It was the last four days, and particularly the last three hours, that were called into question by the state of Tennessee. Both Andy and Crystal, interviewed separately for this story, corroborated the chronology of their son's final days, up to the night he died.

On Saturday, May 31, 2003, they said, Ethan threw up, the first of three times over the next two days he became ill for no apparent reason.

This was not just a normal spit-up but projectile vomiting. Liquid had been expelled several feet and stained the footrest of a blue recliner. But the child had little or no fever and otherwise did not appear to be sick.

The next day, Sunday, the Housers spent the afternoon window-shopping at Opry Mills. In a shoe store Ethan had a second episode of projectile vomiting. Liquid stained a store display several feet away from the baby's stroller. The alarmed parents apologized to an employee for the mess and left to call a doctor.

Unable to reach their pediatrician, their call was forwarded to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where a nurse practitioner told them Ethan likely had a stomach bug. She instructed to give the baby Pedialyte to keep him from becoming dehydrated.

The Housers waited for a few hours at a McDonald's to see if Ethan kept the medicine down. He appeared OK, but after they got back home, Ethan vomited in the same manner for the third time. They sped off for a late night visit to the emergency room at the Murfreesboro hospital. Doctors could find nothing wrong and sent him home.

The following afternoon, Monday, June 2, the couple took their boy to his pediatrician in Murfreesboro. An ultrasound of the baby's stomach revealed nothing awry. Overfeeding was suggested as a possible cause.

The next evening — a Tuesday — Andy Houser drove his wife to her third-shift job at the Bridgestone plant in Morrison. Ethan, who had not vomited in more than 36 hours, was in his car seat beside her in the back seat of the couple's 1994 Toyota Camry. One of Crystal Houser's co-workers approached to coo-coo the baby when she saw the Housers arrive. Ethan looked fine, the co-worker later told police. Andy and Ethan left Crystal at work and headed home.

About two hours later, the baby was pronounced dead at the Medical Center of Manchester.

The repercussions were immediate and profound.

An emergency room doctor told Detective Billy Marcom of the Coffee County Sheriff's Department that Ethan was dead when the child was brought through the door of the emergency room. The death was suspicious, Marcom was told.

In addition, a family row had erupted in the hospital when the baby's death was announced. Crystal's mother and stepfather, Judy and Robert Weyler of Manchester, believed their son-in-law was to blame. The grandmother told Marcom that Andy Houser's first words to her at the hospital were: "I didn't do anything wrong."

A man with a furrowed brow and a deep, rumbling voice, Marcom said he knew from the start to keep his eye on the infant's father. Marcom would later come to believe Andy Houser had killed his son.

"I mean, there's a lot of things we looked at that just don't add up,'' the detective noted.

On June 6, Ethan Houser was lowered into a grave next to his brother, Jonathan, at Forest Mill Cemetery, about a mile east of Manchester.

The funeral had turned into a private affair because of security concerns. To avoid another scene like the one at the hospital, the couple secretly rescheduled the service for early that day. Present were just the preacher, Andy, Crystal, and two detectives, Marcom and Frank Watkins.

What they had learned from the state medical examiner about the death of the boy in the small coffin disturbed them. Dr. John Gerber was of the opinion that blunt force trauma killed the baby.

They questioned the forensic pathologist at length. "We wanted to make sure there was no chance of any type of physical disorder that caused it. Me and Billy both asked that a dozen times," said Watkins, a 13-year lawman.

"The way he put it … this is blunt force trauma, no ifs, ands or buts."

Armed with that information, it was time for a showdown.

A few hours after the funeral service, the investigators took Andy Houser to their office for questioning. For the first of many times, the young father told his story of what happened during the last hours of Ethan's life on June 3.

Father's story
What he said, retold here, was crucial to their case:

Shortly after 8 p.m. that night, an hour after he returned home from taking his wife to work, Andy said he was using the computer when Ethan woke up hungry and crying.

While he was in the kitchen preparing a bottle, the infant abruptly turned silent. The father told investigators he discovered his son was not breathing. After picking him up he turned Ethan over and patted his back. A yellowish liquid spilled out of the child's mouth onto the carpet.

The baby was still not breathing. He placed him on a changing table to begin CPR. Momentarily, the child began taking gasping breaths. The father returned him to the car seat and called one of his best friends, a state trooper, while rushing to the car.

The trooper told him not to wait on an ambulance. The officer also gave him the number of Manchester Medical Center's emergency room.

He was speeding more than 100 mph, Houser told the detectives. About halfway to the ER, Ethan stopped breathing again. The father said he drove with his left hand on the steering wheel and his right reaching back to compress the baby's chest and restart his breathing.

According to hospital records he delivered Ethan to the ER at 8:28 p.m. Medical staff told the investigators the child was dead on arrival, but the emergency staff tried to resuscitate him for a half-hour. Death was officially noted at 8:58 p.m.

After hearing his story, Marcom and Watkins began poking holes. They questioned whether Houser could speed that fast on the curvy country road that led to town from the couple's home.

They questioned why Ethan did not become ill until Houser returned home after an out-of-state absence of several weeks. At the time the father was working for a company that installed fiber optic cable.

Most importantly, why did he not call 911, instead of his trooper friend?

Later, after looking at phone records, the detectives said they did not believe Houser was talking to his friend at the same time he was driving. They concluded there was an unknown interval of time before the father departed for the ER with his dying son.

"Instead of getting in the car and hauling butt to the durn hospital, he wants to set on the phone (asking) 'What do I do? What do I do?' " Watkins said.

There were two other developments that bothered the detectives. After the visitation period at the funeral home, the lawmen learned that Andy Houser had said the cause of death was natural.

"He told several people that the medical examiner had already ruled, and he had done nothing wrong," Marcom said.

"He had done spread the rumor," Watkins added. (Andy denied this.)

Then at the abbreviated funeral service, the detectives said they watched Houser closely for clues from his demeanor. Two years later, they remain shocked at the father's stoic façade.

"Me and Billy cried more than he did, 'cause that boy never shed the first tear. He showed no emotion," Watkins said.

"One time he came up with his hands, rubbing his fingers into his eyes to try to bring tears," Marcom said.

The sheriff's men acknowledged they pushed hard in the interrogation room that June day.

"I'm going to tell you it wasn't good-cop, bad-cop on that day; it was bad-cop, bad-cop," Watkins recalled.

"We told him, 'look, we know something happened,' and that's when we tried to give him every out possible."

Maybe he accidentally dropped the baby. Or maybe he got mad at the baby for crying, they suggested.

"He never took one of them. Him, he never wavered, he never changed. He sat there, elbows on his knees and blank-stared at the wall the whole time we talked. We gave him every opportunity," Watkins added.

The detectives urged the young man to take a polygraph test. Although not admissible in court, the lie detector could help erase their doubts about his story, they told him.

"He lawyered-up right then," Watkins said.

The battle begins
Of course he called an attorney, Andy acknowledged. Sitting in the front yard of his Coffee County home last summer, sipping lemonade in the bright sunshine, the young man recalled that day of interrogation with a sour scowl.

"I knew exactly the role they were playing before they started. When they came in the room together I knew, 'OK, here it comes.' I was already ready for it," he said.

Since he was 8, Houser had wanted to be a state trooper. He had many friends in law enforcement and felt he knew how the system worked by listening to their stories. But now he was the one being grilled, the one whose actions were being scrutinized, the one with fingers pointing at him. "We know you did it, just tell us why," Houser said the detectives asked again and again on that hot day in June.

Houser said he did not budge. He clung to the promise of being innocent until proven guilty.

"I hung on for a fight," he said.

The battle started soon enough.

Part Two
Nine months after she buried her 10-week-old son, Crystal Allman was grateful to know that the slow wheels of justice had finally turned.

Andy Houser, her former husband, would soon be in jail after being indicted on a first-degree murder charge in the death of their son, Ethan Houser. The state of Tennessee alleged that the father had shaken his infant son so severely as to cause fatal brain injuries.
Although it had taken several months after Ethan's death, the young woman had come to believe that her husband of about 2½ years had killed the baby. She wanted justice.

"In every ounce of my body and my being I think he did (it)," she said.

Science and the justice system agreed with her, for a time. But like her baby's life, that vindication was to be short-lived. The case came to a sudden end, but left a lasting impression on everyone it touched.

Said prosecutor Jason Ponder: "I am convinced something happened out there. Convinced of it and being able to prove it are two different things. When I'm 75 years old, if I live to be that old, I will think back on this case."

Open and shut
To detectives Frank Watkins and Billy Marcom, it was pretty simple: A baby was dead, an autopsy said he had been shaken to death, and the father's story was full of holes.

The day a Coffee County grand jury handed down the indictment, March 8, 2004, Watkins and Marcom went to Andy's workplace in Murfreesboro. They read him his rights as they handcuffed him to take him to the county jail.

Both lawmen had known this day was coming since they had questioned Houser about the death of his infant son, Ethan, who died on June 3, 2003. Their interrogation had ended abruptly when Houser asked for a lawyer.

Since then, the state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on the 10-week-old baby had firmed up his initial determination of "multiple acute and chronic blunt force injuries" as the cause of death.

The father was the last person to be with the child, whose head exhibited the telltale signs of shaken baby syndrome: a bruised and bleeding brain and ruptured blood vessels in an eye.

The trail leading to the dad was very short.

Houser's soon-to-be-ex-wife, Crystal, and in-laws, Robert and Judy Weyler, were happy to see him go to jail. Judy had told authorities all along that she believed Andy had "done something that night."

As the trial date of Jan. 10, 2005, approached, attorneys on both sides understood the outcome of the trial would depend heavily on expert medical testimony.

Two doctors
For the prosecution, expertise would come from Dr. John Gerber of the state medical examiner's office in Nashville. He performed the autopsy on Ethan and ruled the baby's death a homicide.

For the defense, their expert was — well, they were still looking for one.

Robert Carter, a well-known defense lawyer in the region, had a hunch about Gerber's autopsy. The defense counselor thought the medical examiner's findings were flawed. He had this feeling. "I knew something was wrong with this autopsy,'' he said later.

Carter, however, would never have the opportunity to cross-examine Gerber. In spring 2004, the 62-year-old forensic pathologist was diagnosed with a fast-growing brain tumor. On June 27 of that year, Gerber died.

The medical examiner's death was a problem for the two prosecutors who wanted to send Andy to prison for the rest of his life, Assistant District Attorneys Ken Shelton and Jason Ponder. Gerber's assessment of the manner of death was essential to their case, and they needed someone to step into his place.

It is the practice at the state medical examiner's office for pathologists to share major findings with a colleague while an autopsy is under way. That way each autopsy will have a pathologist who can serve as a backup resource.

At the time Gerber was examining Ethan's body, Dr. Thomas Deering was conducting another autopsy in the same suite. When Gerber died, Deering became the prosecution's chief witness by default, but because of previous court rulings he could not just reiterate Gerber's report. Deering was to come to his own conclusion about Ethan's demise by reviewing preserved tissue samples, slides and autopsy photos.

Early on in the process, Shelton visited Deering at his office. "He was very confident that his findings would in fact be consistent with those of Dr. Gerber," the prosecutor said.

The first trial date of Jan. 10 was postponed because defense counsel Carter was involved in another murder trial three weeks earlier. He did not think he could adequately prepare for Andy's trial.

The Houser trial was reset for May 18, 2005, only to be postponed again to Dec. 7, 2005.

The defense still did not have a medical expert. The state vigorously fought the delay, but its objection was overruled.

Meanwhile in fall 2005, the defense found the expert they needed after talking to doctors in several states.

Dr. Ronald Uscinski, a neurosurgeon who practices near Baltimore, had testified in numerous shaken baby trials. Uscinski was a vocal skeptic of the syndrome, calling shaken baby "an unconfirmed hypothesis" and having published or contributed to several academic papers on the subject.

In his work at Georgetown Hospital, where he was head of pediatric neurology for about a decade, Uscinski said suspected cases of shaking were sometimes referred to him. "I noticed each time there was a better explanation for the injuries that I saw than shaking. It turns out shaking was an attempt to explain what to pediatricians were unexplained injuries," he said in an interview at his Maryland office last summer.

"Shaking a young baby hard enough to bruise the brain runs contrary to the law of physics. If you took a little baby and shook it, you'd probably break its neck before you did anything else."

In Ethan's case, the autopsy report indicated no external trauma and no injury to the neck. As for the fresh blood in the baby's brain found during the autopsy, Uscinski said it came from an old wound that began bleeding again. "Re-bleeds" were not unusual in such cases and were likely to produce vomiting and convulsions.

After two years of living under a cloud of suspicion that he killed his own son, Andy Houser had found someone who believed his story: Baby Ethan did not die because of anything his father did or did not do that night, Uscinski said. The child's fate was sealed perhaps before he ever came into this world, either in the womb or at birth.

Second thoughts
Meanwhile, Deering at the state medical examiner's office was also having second thoughts about the baby's death.

When he looked at tissue slides preserved from the autopsy, he made a surprising discovery: The surface of the brain on these wounds was not affected.

That, he noted in a recent interview, indicated that ruptured blood vessels beneath the surface caused the wounds, not blunt force, which would have harmed the surface as well.

"Indeed, in this case, the overlying tissue was spared, which was consistent with a stroke," Deering said.

In fact, the doctor concluded that Ethan had multiple strokes and suffered them much earlier in his life than four days before he died. The strokes could even have occurred in the womb.

But the clincher was a test for something called the amyloid beta precursor protein.

When the brain is injured by a violent event, such as shaking, this protein attaches to the axons, the long and slender nerve branches that stem from brain cells.

In shaken baby cases, the brain rattles about the skull and is bruised. One of the signs of that injury is widespread damage to the axons, and the presence of the special protein.

So Deering and his associates went looking for that protein in preserved samples of Ethan's brain. The protein wasn't there.

"What was very helpful in this case is that it was clearly negative," Deering said. "There was no evidence on the microscopic level that there was a diffuse shearing injury to the brain. Neither was there brain edema, which would be swelling of the brain. They are both things that are arguing against a shaken baby or a shearing injury of the brain."

Deering shared the discoveries with colleagues at the medical examiner's office. "We realized that they all fit into a progression that could all be explained by natural causes or by some minor trauma, like CPR," he said.

Andy Houser had said all along that he had administered CPR to his son before taking him to the hospital. CPR also could account for the bleeding in the retina of his eye. "That's exactly what we think happened,'' Deering added.

Two doctors in two states had come to the same conclusion: Andy Houser did not kill his son.


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