Expert testifies Novak death not homicide

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico

The last thing the jury heard Saturday before the defense counsel for Edward Novak II rested its case was that Kimberly Novak wasn’t killed at all, but instead, died of natural causes.
This week, jurors will decide which expert opinions they believe.

If convicted, Novak faces life in prison. Kimberly Novak, 20, died Oct. 28, 2004, in the military housing unit she shared with her husband and infant daughter.

The defense case, which followed eight days of prosecution testimony and began Friday, consisted of three witnesses.

Jurors heard testimony from a forensic odentologist, who on Friday debunked prosecution bite mark evidence; a forensic pathologist who reversed the cause of death previously testified to by the state medical examiner’s office; and Kimberly Novak’s mother, who said her daughter bumped her head in the refrigerator while they were on the phone the night she died.

Dr. Harry Bonnell, a forensic pathologist from San Diego, testified he examined slides of Kimberly Novak’s lung and heart tissue and found evidence of inflammation and muscle degeneration consistent with a viral infection.

Bonnell said he also found evidence of vomit trapped in her lungs and determined that in the 12 to 24 hours preceding her death, she had episodes of vomiting caused by the virus.

Photos taken at the scene showed vomit in the toilet and on Kimberly Novak’s chest and neck, indicating she was vomiting before her death, Bonnell said.

A rare condition called miocarditus, a viral infection in the digestive system, gets into the blood stream and infects the heart, Bonnell said. There are few, if any, symptoms and often sudden death from heart failure results.

The persons most commonly affected are in their late teens and early 20s, he testified.

The evidence he studied indicated, “She had severe, widespread inflammation,” he said.

Bonnell said the work of Russell Alexander, who was new to pathology and in his fourth month at New Mexico’s office of the Medical Investigator, ignored the advice of senior pathologists who told him to examine heart tissue.

“(If you’re inexperienced, you) listen to the people with more experience and look at more heart tissue,” he said.

Bruises on Kimberly Novak’s head were typical of “bumps” and would not have caused death, Bonnell said. Nor would the marks on her neck which a forensic pathologist for the prosecution testified were strangulation wounds.

Bonnell said apparent fingertip bruises near Novak’s chin were easily explained by attempts first responders made to resuscitate her. No single injury or combination of injuries caused her death, he said, and there was no evidence, in his opinion, of any other explanation.

Lt. Col. Dan Higgins aggressively attacked Bonnell’s opinion on cross-examination, classifying the condition as very rare and Bonnell’s opinion as hasty.

“So if you’re going to die from miocarditus, you’re pretty darn unique,” Higgins said sarcastically.

“It’s not something people die of every day, but it’s something pathologists need to know about,” Bonnell replied.

Higgins also attacked Bonnell’s background, bringing into question Bonnell’s termination from a California medical examiner’s office and prior cases in which he was accused of negligence.

Bonnell, who defended his credibility, said he was swept up in ethical and political situations in those cases. In his termination, he said he was asked to suppress information of careless drug accountability practices.

And the California Supreme Court dismissed the negligence charges levied against him, he said.

Monday the prosecution will have an opportunity to rebut the defense’s case.