Comedian John Belushi's 1982 drug overdose death could have been caused by something other than a hypodermic injection administered by Cathy Evelyn Smith, the Los Angeles County coroner indicated in testimony Wednesday.
Fatal amounts of cocaine and morphine found in Belushi's blood after he died could have been inhaled or eaten as well as injected, said Dr. Ronald Kornblum, the county's acting chief medical examiner. Morphine is a byproduct of heroin, which breaks down almost immediately when it enters the blood, Kornblum said.
Although the cause of Belushi's death is officially listed as acute cocaine and morphine intoxication, Kornblum added, either cocaine or heroin alone could have killed him. Furthermore, the doctor said, Belushi could not have died from any drugs he took before 6 a.m. the day his body was found.
26 Needle Marks
Another medical expert testified that photographs of Belushi's body show signs of as many as 26 needle marks inside the crooks of his arms, all made within five days of his death.
It was Kornblum, however, who was the key witness on the third day of a preliminary hearing for Smith, 38, who is being prosecuted for second-degree murder and 13 counts of furnishing drugs in connection with Belushi's death on March 5, 1982, at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.
Smith's attorney, Howard L. Weitzman, said outside the courtroom that Kornblum's statements cast doubt on the prosecution's theory that Smith's injections of heroin and cocaine killed the portly, 33-year-old film and television star.
"I think he's the best witness we've called so far," Weitzman jokingly said of Kornblum, who actually was summoned to the stand by Deputy Dist. Attys. Michael J. Montagna and Elden S. Fox.
Fox, however, said he believes that Kornblum's testimony is consistent with the prosecution's theory of the case.
Since the hearing began Monday in Los Angeles Municipal Court, Montagna and Fox have tried to show that Smith alone provided Belushi with heroin and injected him with solutions of heroin and cocaine, known as "speedballs,"in the last five days of his life. The prosecutors acknowledge that Belushi received cocaine from other sources.
Next Expert Witness
Fox said the next expert witness to be called by the prosecution when the hearing resumes next Wednesday is expected to testify that "but for the heroin or the morphine, John Belushi would not have died."
Montagna and Fox are also seeking the testimony of two reporters for the National Enquirer. In a June, 1982, article in the tabloid, Smith is quoted as saying that she repeatedly injected Belushi with speedballs and administered the "coup de grace," the final injection, at about 3:30 a.m. the day he died.
Kornblum testified Wednesday that Belushi died sometime between 10 a.m. and noon, and that traces of both cocaine and morphine were found in his blood. Because morphine remains in the blood for only about four hours, the final--and fatal--dose of heroin or cocaine could have come no earlier than 6 a.m., Kornblum indicated. Cocaine remains in the blood only about two hours, the doctor said.
Likely Cause of Death
Morphine, the heroin derivative, was the more likely cause of Belushi's death, the coroner said, because Belushi's lungs were swollen with fluid, as if he had slipped into a coma before dying. However, Kornblum explained, either drug could have caused the death.
Kornblum also said that there is no way to tell whether the cocaine and heroin that killed Belushi had been injected into the bloodstream with a hypodermic needle, was swallowed, or was inhaled.
Outside the courtroom, Fox said he does not believe Smith's assertion in the Enquirer that she gave Belushi the last injection at 3:30 a.m.
"Assuming that there is sufficient evidence to show, as we believe, that heroin was the predominant cause of death, we believe . . . under the theory of . . . felony murder that she could be culpable for anything from involuntary manslaughter to second-degree murder."
The felony murder theory holds that a death that occurs during the commission of an inherently dangerous crime, in this case, administering narcotics, can be charged as second-degree murder, regardless of whether there was intent to kill.