Parents fight on after doctor is cleared of killing baby boy

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The Independent Online
IN PORT ANGELES, a seaport on Washington State's rugged Olympic Peninsula, residents were digesting the latest twist yesterday in a legal and ethical drama that has obsessed the city for more than a year.

The city's leading paediatrician, Eugene Turner, who was to have stood trial this week accused of killing a three-day-old boy, had been cleared of all charges even before a jury had been empanelled. The decision, announced by the prosecution in an overflowing courtroom on Monday, brought stunned relief both to the doctor, who has tended to local children for 27 years,and to most of the city, which had rallied to his defence.

It brought dismay, however, to the parents of the baby, who quickly served notice that they will be pursuing Dr Turner with a wrongful death lawsuit.

The events of 12 January 1998, when tiny Conor McInnerney, then three days old, stopped breathing while breastfeeding at his parents' home, and the legal maelstrom that they triggered, have put Port Angeles into a media spotlight across the United States.

At issue is a question that even the medical establishment has difficulty answering: in a child so young when is dead really dead?

It was a tragedy, moreover, that was to claim yet another victim. The chief emergency room doctor in the city's Olympic Memorial Hospital, Dr Bruce Rowan, whose notes from the night of baby Conor's death were to form the crux of the prosecution case against Dr Turner, six weeks later took an axe to his wife and killed her. Since convicted of murder, he said he was partly driven to kill by anguish over the baby.

There is little dispute over what transpired on the night Conor died. The child was taken to the hospital at 8.15pm. He was limp, blue in colour, his eyes were dilated and he was not breathing. Normally, he would have been flown to nearby Seattle for treatment but a rare snowstorm had grounded all helicopter service. So Dr Rowan telephoned Dr Turner for help.

Early resuscitation efforts at the hospital had stimulated some signs of life in the infant. But after striving for an hour to restore normal breathing and a heartbeat, Dr Turner gave up.

He gave a seemingly lifeless Conor to his stricken parents, Marty and Michelle McInnerney, to hold one more time. Their baby, Dr Turner said, had died. He and both parents left the hospital for their homes but then, at about 10.30pm, a nurse noticed something extraordinary as she passed the room where the infant's body had been placed.

The child was taking occasional gasps, his upper body was moving slightly and his colour had gone from blue to a faint pink. Dr Rowan summoned Dr Turner back.

At about midnight a nurse walked into the room with a glass of juice for Dr Turner who had been trying to revive the child once more, at one point by plunging him in a basin of iced water.

The doctor had one hand over the boy's nose and mouth. According to one nurse, he muttered: "I can't stand it. I can't have this go on any more."

The County Prosecutor, David Bruneau, waited until October before finally filing second-degree murder charges against Dr Turner. It was a decision that many believe cost him his job - one month later, he was turned out of office by county voters after 17 years of service to the community.

In the weeks following, the people of Port Angeles raised $40,000 for a defence fund for the much-liked paediatrician.

"I probably would not do it again," Dr Turner said recently of the smothering. But he has insisted that he did nothing criminal. In court filings, his lawyers said that the last spasmodic breaths of the child was a case of "agonal breathing" that signifies imminent death.

And the child, the lawyers asserted, was already brain dead. Medical research, however, suggests that determining the moment of death in a person so young is unusually difficult. A newborn's brain can sustain activity without oxygen for longer than an adult's.

Dr Turner still runs his clinic in Port Angeles but has already lost his right to practise at Memorial hospital. The state's medical commission is to hold a hearing that could result in his being stripped of his licence and it also remains possible that the criminal charges against him could be reinstated if new evidence emerges.

Meanwhile, he faces the civil suit. An attorney for Conor's parents told reporters that Dr Turner's conduct "was simply wrong. Marty and Michelle will always be haunted by the image of what Dr Turner did while he was alone with Conor that night."

In their own statement, the McInnerneys said they "will continue to do everything we can to see justice for Conor".