MANTI — The trial of a Sanpete County mother on child-abuse homicide charges ended abruptly Wednesday when the potential for a mistrial prompted the two sides to settle the case.
Under the agreement, charges against Carmen Pappenfuss, who had been accused of shaking her 20-day-old baby to death in 2005, will be dropped after one year as long as she is not charged with any serious violations of law during that period.
The case generated significant public interest in Sanpete County. During a preliminary hearing in 2006, the courtroom was packed with family members of Pappenfuss and her husband, Josh, as well as Fountain Green neighbors who supported the couple.
"I'm extremely happy, grateful to a good attorney and grateful to my Heavenly Father," Carmen Pappenfuss said after the jury was dismissed.
Her attorney, Mary Corporan, said the real heroes in the case had been expert witnesses who offered an alternate explanation for autopsy findings that initially suggested shaken baby syndrome. The two witnesses, a pathologist from Duluth, Minn., and Dr. J. Michael Clark, an Ogden neonatologist, testified that the baby, Selah Pappenfuss, died from influenza A, the common flu, complicated by blood coagulation problems.
Events leading to the quick wrap-up of the highly technical case began when Craig Barlow, an assistant attorney general specializing in child abuse who was assisting local prosecutors, moved for a mistrial on grounds he had not received adequate notice about the substance of defense witness testimony and wasn't prepared to cross-examine the defense experts.
Before ruling on the motion, 6th District Judge David Mower asked the two sides to meet outside the courtroom to discuss alternatives to a new trial, including an extended recess to give the prosecution more time to prepare or simply settling the case.
Sanpete County Attorney Ross Blackham said it appeared that the mistrial might be granted. Both sides already had spent much time and money on the case, he said, and a new trial would have required attorneys to start over from scratch, including holding a new preliminary hearing.
Blackham said Barlow, the main litigator for the state, would have needed another month to prepare. It would have been difficult, the Sanpete County attorney said, to prevent bias from creeping into the jury over such a long break.
The decision boiled down to the question of whether pressing the case was worth the effort and cost, Blackham said. He said he and other prosecutors, including Barlow and Deputy County Attorney Brody Keisel, decided it would be better to let Carmen Pappenfuss "get on with her life."
Even though the motion for a mistrial ended up killing the case, Blackham said the issue of inadequate notice of the type of testimony the defense planned to present was so important it would have been irresponsible for the prosecution not to raise it.
He denied that compelling testimony by defense experts played any role in the decision to cut off the prosecution.
"Both sides stand by their evidence," he said, adding that the expert witnesses on the two sides of the case "simply differed."
The Pappenfuss baby was found dead in her crib about at 8 a.m. on Dec. 15, 2005, about six hours after Carmen Pappenfuss fed and diapered her.
Dr. Edward Leis, chief deputy medical examiner for the state, testified that autopsy results showed fresh blood in the brain, in the lining around the brain, near optic nerves and in the spinal fluid. Leis also testified that there were significant bruises on the baby's buttocks.
"I didn't see anything else that would make me come to any other conclusion other than inflicted injuries producing this trauma," he said.
Tests also showed influenza A virus in the baby's nostrils, Leis said. But he said the disease had not spread significantly enough to cause death.
"I ruled out the possibility of a widespread viral infection in the body," he said.
But Clark, the Ogden neonatologist, testified that autopsy findings fit the profile of about 200 newborns who died of influenza A in 2003. The cases were described in a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even in early stages of the flu, newborn babies can develop apnea, or interruptions in breathing, he testified. "When babies get severe and frequent apnea, they die right away," he said.
In about half of the babies in the CDC study, the virus had not spread to the lungs, Clark said.
Another significant complication, Clark testified, was the fact that because Selah Pappenfuss was born at home, she did not receive a Vitamin K injection, which is routinely given to babies born in hospitals. Until their body chemistry has time to develop, newborns can't retain Vitamin K, which is required for blood coagulation.
Clark testified that as a newborn's body fights the flu, it can develop Disseminated Intravascular Coagulopathy (DIC), or a drop in what little natural clotting factor its body has. Sometimes, all of the clotting factor is used up and "they bleed," he said.
Twelve percent of the babies in the CDC study had a DIC diagnosis, Clark testified. Selah Pappenfuss had a high chance of developing DIC because she wasn't given a Vitamin K injection, he testified.
The coagulation problems could have contributed to the blood found in the child's body in the autopsy and could have led to spontaneous bruising on the buttocks, he said.
"I believe that Influenza A was a factor, a Vitamin K deficiency with coagulopathy was a factor, and those factors could explain this death without abuse," he testified.