Expert challenges results of second autopsy in Ottawa murder case

Forensic pathologist Dr. Chistopher Milroy testifies in the murder trial of Tracy Cusick.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Chistopher Milroy testifies in the murder trial of Tracy Cusick.

Someone who abuses methadone will build up a tolerance, but a pathologist testified Wednesday that Tracy Cusick could have lost her tolerance within “several days” and then risked an overdose.

Dr. Christopher Milroy also testified that an overdose best explains Cusick’s death because the Ottawa woman did not drown. Milroy said he reviewed autopsies conducted on Cusick hours after her death Jan. 17, 2006, and a second when she was exhumed in 2010.

“Do you agree with [the] finding that Tracy died of drowning?” asked Ottawa defense attorney Ryan Hamer.

“I do not,” Milroy answered.

Tracy Cusick’s husband needs a jury to believe Milroy or he could face a long time in prison. Kenneth Cusick is on trial for first-degree murder and prosecutors have so far produced witnesses who’ve said Tracy Cusick drowned in a home toilet because someone held her under.

Kenneth Cusick and his lawyers now are presenting witnesses of their own in hopes of persuading a jury that Tracy Cusick did not drown but died from a mixture of methadone and alcohol. Milroy took the stand Wednesday and disputed autopsy results that led to rulings of death by drowning.

Milroy testified that prosecutors’ first two pathologists assigned too much importance to the fact that fluid was found in Tracy Cusick’s lungs. Fluid in the lungs is indeed found in all drowning cases, Milroy allowed, but it’s also found in a wide array of nondrowning deaths including overdoses.

And Milroy said the level of methadone found in Tracy Cusick’s body stood a tick above the median range found to cause death.

That testimony directly contradicts witnesses who’ve testified for the prosecution. Earlier at trial, a pathologist firmly ruled out overdose as the cause of Tracy Cusick’s death. Dr. Scott Denton said the fluid he found inside Tracy Cusick’s lungs was consistent with drowning, not an overdose.

A toxicologist for the prosecution also ruled out an overdose. Dr. Christopher Long acknowledged some overlap between the toxic and lethal ranges for methadone and acknowledged the quantity in Tracy Cusick’s system was on the bubble, but the volume of methadone he found was more likely to kill a first-time user rather than someone with a tolerance from regular or intermittent use.

Milroy partially disputed those findings. A regular methadone user will indeed build up a tolerance, he said, but an intermittent user can lose that tolerance and then die suddenly.

Milroy said there were other signs of drug dependence that should have been considered. These included fainting spells – witnesses said Tracy Cusick had passed out at a holiday table – and her use of methadone without a prescription. Each symptom of abuse, he said, “was an important piece of information for me.”

How long does it take to lose one’s tolerance? Milroy didn’t pinpoint a precise timetable but said it can take several days and rejected earlier testimony it can take a month.

“You don’t lose tolerance the next day,” Millroy allowed, adding later, “I think that [30 days] may be a bit much.”

Milroy also contradicted a potentially pivotal piece of evidence for the state. Earlier at trial, Denton testified finding deep bruises inside Tracy Cusick’s neck – proof, prosecutors said, Kenneth used force to hold her down – but Milroy said neck injuries can show up posthumously and need to be regarded cautiously after exhumation.

“You only have one go at this,” Milroy said. “After that, you have to be very careful.”

Trying to undermine Milroy’s credibility, First Assistant La Salle County State’s Attorney George Mueller asked Milroy if he’d been suspended from one of his posts and had been associated with a group under federal investigation. Milroy said the suspension was for nonprofessional issues and that he had nothing to do with the group’s alleged misconduct.

The jury is tentatively set to begin deliberations Friday.

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