Was baby Conor's death a case of murder or mercy killing?

After 39 minutes without air, the infant was almost certainly brain dead, but was his doctor right to end his misery? Andrew Gumbel investigates a case that has torn a US town asunder
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The Independent Online
EUGENE TURNER is the sort of figure a small town cannot help but revere.

For 28 years he has been the most sought-after pediatrician on the Olympic Peninsula in the far north-west of the US, viewed by everyone as a caring, deeply compassionate man whose love for children has determined his every action. He is known not only as an accomplished physician, but also as a vital community figurehead who organises charity events, takes in foster children and donates food and medical assistance to the poor.

So the fact that Dr Turner is standing trial on second-degree murder charges is causing considerable consternation. His alleged crime: to have made an over-hasty pronouncement of death on a three-day-old baby and taken it upon himself to stop the struggling infant's breathing by stifling him with his own hand.

For months, the case has torn at the emotions and the very fabric of Port Angeles, a depressed former logging town perched between the mountains and the sea west of Seattle, raising questions not only about medical ethics but also about the viper's nest of local politics and how it has sucked everyone remotely connected to the affair into its thrall. Did Dr Turner do the humane thing under difficult circumstances, or were his actions the result of a terrible error of judgement?

The events at the root of the affair took place on a snowy night last January. Michelle McInnerney was home breast-feeding her new baby, Conor, when she noticed he had stopped breathing. Her husband, Marty, dialled 911 (emergency) and within minutes they were all speeding by ambulance to Port Angeles' Olympic Memorial Hospital.

Every initial resuscitation effort failed, even after Conor was hooked up to life-support machinery. Just when all seemed lost, though, his heartbeat resumed and a little colour returned to his flesh - after a 39-minute lapse. Dr Turner, who had delivered the baby, was called out immediately.

The situation looked grim. For a baby of Conor's age to stop breathing for 20 minutes almost certainly implied irreversible brain damage; to stop for nearly 40 almost certainly meant he was brain-dead - in other words, his system was no longer viable and any residual breathing was a death-rattle that would shortly cease.

Normally, Conor would have been airlifted to Seattle for a brain scan to certify that there was indeed nothing more to be done. But poor weather meant there was no prospect of landing a helicopter, so Dr Turner took the situation into his own hands. For 50 minutes he tried in vain to get Conor to breathe on his own, but it was no good. The baby's body was limp, his pupils were fixed and dilated.

Dr Turner explained the situation to the parents, a priest was called, and the life-support machines were switched off. Conor was declared dead and everyone left.

Then, half an hour later, a nurse passed his room and heard him gasp. The gasping continued, and Conor began to turn pink. To considerable fluster in the emergency ward, Dr Turner was recalled. He tried in vain to insert a respirator down Conor's throat, but the baby's trachea was swollen from previous attempts.

Still the breathing continued. Did Dr Turner want to call an

anaesthesiologist? No. Should the parents be informed? No. At length, he said he wanted to be alone for a few minutes. When the nurses returned, one of them overheard him say he couldn't stand to watch this any longer. In full view of his colleagues, he pinched Conor's nose and mouth shut, and within seconds it was all over.

Or at least the medical tragedy was over. The human intrigue was only just beginning. Despite Dr Turner's reputation, the nurses and an emergency room doctor were not comfortable with what they had witnessed, and put in a call to the Seattle Children's Hospital. Two days later Dr Turner was ordered, against his will, to give a full account of what had happened to Conor's parents.

Quite what happened next is legally disputed, but the irrefutable fact is that by the time the story made the local paper, the Peninsular Daily News, it had become a scandal that nobody - local townsfolk or medical authorities - could ignore.

Why had Dr Turner attempted to revive Conor if he was convinced the baby was already dead? Were his actions a form of unauthorised euthanasia or, worse, a cover-up for a wrong diagnosis? The spotlight turned to the Clallam County prosecutor, David Bruneau, who had to decide whether to press charges. At first public opinion was so solidly behind Dr Turner that it seemed he would not dare.

But Mr Bruneau was not an entirely disinterested party. Dr Turner's wife, Norma, had campaigned vigorously to unseat him at the last election for prosecuting attorney, and looked set to do the same when his term came up for renewal in November. The prosecutor thus faced a delicate choice, in which his own career, as well as Eugene Turner's, was on the line. While he hesitated, Port Angeles opinion gradually became more polarised, and the penniless McInnerneys hired a sharp lawyer who encouraged them to start tossing lawsuits around.

Having expressed initial gratitude to Dr Turner (he has a thank-you letter to prove it), the McInnerneys started claiming that they had been misled. "As far as I'm concerned, Conor was coming back. God was working a miracle for us," Michelle McInnerney said recently.

The prosecutor at last filed second-degree murder charges on 31 August - with the critical concession that the case should be tried in Port Angeles rather than in a neighbouring county. Dr Turner thus faces serious charges, but a high probability that a local jury will acquit him.

In his rare pronouncements, he has always insisted he did the right thing. "I would never block the air passage of a living child. I only did this because I knew this baby was dead," he said shortly after being charged. "No matter how many times I see a child die, it never ceases to traumatise me... If I ever stopped caring, I would quit being a doctor."

His future may depend on what, exactly, the courts and the medical establishment deem to be the definition of death in a three-day-old infant. That may be a technical question, but in Port Angeles, where a clutch of narrow interests are seeking ways to turn the case to their advantage, it could either rescue or demolish the reputation of a once unassailable man.