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Baby Died of Meth, Official Testifies

August 26, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

In the murder trial of a Perris woman accused killing her 3-month-old son, a county pathologist Monday testified it was his "firm opinion" that the boy's death was caused by acute methamphetamine intoxication.

Joseph I. Cohen, Riverside County's chief forensic pathologist, said he based his determination on a toxicology report that showed Jacob Wesley Smith had "general, not trace" amounts of the drug in his system when he died Jan. 19, 2002.

"I feel very comfortable in my opinion that Baby Jacob died from the effects of methamphetamine," Cohen said. "Those substances cause rapid heart rate, skipped beats, increased blood pressure. Those effects ... are not to be ignored."

Riverside County prosecutor Allison Nelson has argued to a jury that Amy Leanne Prien should be convicted of murder because her neglect allowed the boy to ingest methamphetamine, possibly through her breast milk.

Cohen, whose testimony will continue today, added that the defense position that the baby died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was flawed because of the presence of methamphetamine in his blood, liver and gastric contents.

Cohen said the baby probably ingested the drug in the hours before his death. Cohen said he could not determine if the baby had repeatedly ingested methamphetamine or how the drug entered the child's system.

Defense attorney Stephen Yagman, in his cross examination, produced what he called "the key document in the case," an amended state death certificate completed by a Riverside County deputy coroner on April 4, 2002, two days after Prien's arrest. Under "Manner of Death," the document has a box checked "accident." The classification of "homicide" was not checked.

"Do you have any idea how an accidental death became a homicide?" Yagman asked.

Cohen said he did not know, adding he doesn't certify the manner of death in his office. Cohen also said that the amended death certificate might be the final official county document regarding the death, although it does not preclude the murder charge from being filed.

"I'm very confident this is a homicide, based on my standing and my experience," Cohen said.

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