Chief pathologist questions 2009 autopsy in family triple killing
A man's 2009 autopsy said he died of "acute cardiac arrhythmia." Dr. Michael Pollanen says he was likely assaulted, but the cause of death is unknown.
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When Bill Harrison, a healthy 65-year-old Mississauga man, was found dead in his family home eight years ago, a pathologist listed the cause of death as “acute cardiac arrhythmia.”
Years later, after two more suspicious deaths in the same family, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist reviewed his colleague’s 2009 autopsy and gave a markedly different opinion.
While there is not enough information to come to a conclusion about how Harrison met his end, the findings suggest he took “heavy blows” to his head and the front of his chest around the time of his death, Dr. Michael Pollanen testified Friday in a triple murder trial in Brampton.
The best explanation, according to Pollanen: “They were caused by another party through an assault or an inflicted injury.”
Melissa Merritt, 37, and her common-law spouse, Christopher Fattore, 40, are on trial for the first-degree murder of Merritt’s estranged husband, Caleb Harrison, in 2013, and his mother, Bridget Harrison, three years earlier.
Fattore alone is charged with second-degree murder in the 2009 death of Bill Harrison, Caleb’s father. All three Harrisons died years apart in the family home on Pitch Pine Cres.
Merritt has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Fattore pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charges, but attempted to plead guilty to manslaughter in the death of Caleb Harrison. The Crown rejected the manslaughter plea.
The prosecution alleges the crimes were committed in relation to a years-long custody battle between Merritt and the Harrisons. A taped police interview will show that after Fattore was arrested in 2014 he confessed to killing Caleb and Bridget, Crown prosecutor Eric Taylor said in his opening address in September.
Pollanen said in court Friday that he did not have enough information to reach a conclusion about how Bill Harrison died. In his April 2015 report examining all three deaths, Pollanen wrote the cause of Bill’s death as “undetermined.”
Pointing to pictures taken at the scene — Bill’s body was found in the locked powder room on the main floor of the family home — the chief forensic pathologist highlighted horizontal markings on Bill’s neck. Pollanen said the markings should have led to a more detailed autopsy to determine if pressure had been applied to the neck.
In his report, Pollanen concluded that both Bridget and Caleb died of neck compression.
The prosecution alleges that an assailant — Fattore — choked them.
Pollanen said he could not diagnose neck compression in Bill’s death.
“There’s a hole, a gap, in the knowledge that we need,” he said under cross-examination by Jennifer Myers, Fattore’s defence lawyer.
Dr. Timothy Feltis, who performed the original post-mortem examination on Bill at Credit Valley Hospital in 2009, considered his exam a “forensic autopsy,” the jury heard. But Pollanen said it was not.
Several “hallmarks” of forensic autopsy were missing from Feltis’s exam, Pollanen testified, including: a collection of trace evidence such as Bill’s fingernail clippings; photo documentation of the autopsy that would have made it possible for an independent party to review the evidence; and a layered neck dissection that Pollanen said is standard practice when markings are found on a dead person’s neck.
Further, Pollanen noted, the cause of death Feltis gave — “acute cardiac arrhythmia” — is not a real cause of death. It’s a “mechanism” of death. “Basically what (it’s) saying is the heart stopped, which does not actually tell you why the heart stopped,” Pollanen said.
“In all fairness, I think what he was trying to communicate … is that there’s something wrong with the heart and that’s what caused the death,” Pollanen said.
But Pollanen said he found no significant evidence that there was anything wrong with Bill’s heart.
Pollanen said Feltis is a “well-experienced pathologist,” and allowed that it is easy in hindsight to point out what should have been done. He also noted that Feltis “was not provided with the proper information about the case,” but did not elaborate.
Under questioning by prosecutor Brian McGuire, Pollanen said he first raised concerns about Bill’s death in an April 2010 case meeting with police about the second death in the family home — that of Bridget Harrison.
“I felt we should exhume him and do a forensic autopsy,” Pollanen testified.
But it could not be done. Bill Harrison had been cremated.
The trial continues before Justice Fletcher Dawson.