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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Expert says Oklahoma County inmate’s death listed wrong

December 16, 2009
BY NOLAN CLAY The Oklahoman

An expert who has done more than 8,000 autopsies testified Tuesday an Oklahoma County jail inmate did not die from head injuries.

The expert, Dr. Thomas Bennett, was the first defense witness at the federal trial of a fired jail guard accused of killing the inmate. Bennett said the cause of death should have been recorded as unknown.

The former guard, Gavin Douglas Littlejohn, 26, of Oklahoma City, is accused in a criminal charge of violating the inmate’s civil rights by using so much excessive force against the inmate that the inmate died. He has admitted striking the handcuffed inmate three times inside the jail’s 13th floor clinic but said he "didn’t even hit that dude hard.”

The inmate, Christopher Beckman, 34, of Choctaw, died in a hospital May 28, 2007, two days after struggling with jail guards. The concrete worker had been jailed for driving under the influence and other minor complaints.

The final prosecution witness, Dr. Eric Duval, testified he did the autopsy on Beckman and found head injuries, brain surface bleeding and brain swelling. He concluded Beckman died from blunt force head trauma. He testified homicide was the manner of death.

"My opinion is the totality of all the injuries to his head led to his death,” said Duval, the deputy chief at Oklahoma’s medical examiner’s office. "His death is due to the blows to his head.”

Duval acknowledged under defense questioning that he had experience doing only about 250 autopsies at the time he did Beckman’s autopsy.

The defense expert told jurors the inmate’s head injuries "cosmetically … look very bad” but did not damage the brain enough to cause death. Bennett, who charges $400 an hour for his testimony in court, pointed out the brain was not bruised.

Bennett, who is from Montana, reviewed autopsy reports, autopsy photos, hospital records, FBI reports and other documents to make his conclusion.

Bennett testified the inmate suffered a hypoxic event, meaning the body did not get enough oxygen. The expert said one explanation could be excited delirium, where a person exhibits psychotic behavior then stops breathing. He said excited delirium could be brought on by drug withdrawal.

Prosecutors suggested excited delirium is a theory that is not officially accepted by the medical community.

The second defense witness, former guard Jeff Eggleston, said he saw other guards hurt the inmate on the jail’s second floor before Littlejohn became involved. Eggleston said two guards hit the inmate’s face into a steel jail door and then into the door frame. Eggleston said he and two jail orderlies had to clean up the blood.

More defense witnesses are to testify today.

Littlejohn will testify Thursday, his defense attorney said. The trial is in federal court in Oklahoma City.

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