Court hears from ME and psychiatrist

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Writer's note: This article contains descriptions of graphic photographs taken during an autopsy.

On Thursday, the court heard from Dr. Donna Stewart, a forensic pathologist with the Kentucky State Medical Examiner’s office. She conducted the autopsy on Jefferey Givan, who died March 14, 2017, in a fire Joshua Risinger, 29, is on trial for setting to kill Givan.

“The gentleman was completely charred and was not identifiable [when he was first brought in],” remembered Stewart.

She explained the process of how a body comes to her, how she examines them and the identification process. She showed photographs she took during the autopsy, to the objection of Risinger’s attorney, David Smith, who said the photographs would be prejudicial to his client. Prosecuting attorney Tara Hunt argued the photographs were important evidence and Judge Larry Medlock agreed and allowed the photographs to be displayed for the jury.

The images showed a bare skull with a blackened face, neck and upper chest, along with the right upper arm extending above the victim’s head and where the hand had burned away with evidence of heat-related fractures on the arms. He’d also lost his left hand in the fire. Stewart described the body to be completely charred, meaning much of the body was absent due to the fire. The charring was extensive on the chest and abdomen, resulting in the skin and muscular structure over the ribs and even down into the bone to be burned away. The stomach was visibly bloated and had moved over due to the loss of the abdominal wall muscle.

“Just like when you put vegetables or meat in the oven, things will bake or char if you leave them in too long,” she said. “Organs are the same way.”

The skin of his pelvic area and back was still intact, but had “leatherized,” which Stewart said was a step beyond third-degree burns. There was evidence of “skin-splitting” on the lower extremities. Thanks to a shoe and sock on his left foot, the skin on the bottom of the foot was spared.

Stewart also showed photos of Givan’s airway, highlighting the blackened line of soot running down through the trachea.

“It was like someone took paint and painted the airway,” said Stewart. “… It means he did inhale smoke and soot from the fire.”

Stewart also examined and showed a photo of a cross section of Givan’s brain. She found evidence of at least one old stroke, which could have been the cause for some of Givan’s disability. She said it wasn’t possible to tell if the stroke may have caused a cognitive deficit, physical deficit or both, but “he may have been able to think about doing something, but not been able to do it quickly.”

An x-ray revealed no objects in Givan’s body that suggested projectiles, such as bullets, stab wounds or blunt-force trauma, but did reveal curvature of the spine.

The toxicology report showed no sign of drugs of abuse or alcohol, but did reveal nicotine and continine, showing Givan’s tobacco use. It also showed a 23.1-percent carbon monoxide saturation in Givan’s blood — not enough to kill a young, healthy person, but Stewart said for someone like Givan, who also had severe heart disease, it was enough to impair his ability to breathe and could have been a partial cause of death.

She declared the cause of death to be carbon monoxide intoxication and soot and smoke inhalation.

With Stewart’s testimony finished, the state rested and the defense offered up no witnesses. Following a break for lunch, the jury returned and heard from the court’s expert witness Dr. George Parker, a forensic psychiatrist who has conducted more than 2,000 evaluation for courts. He had been asked by the Washington County Circuit Court to evaluate whether Risinger had a mental disorder and whether that disorder kept him from understanding the wrongfulness of his actions.

Parker said he spent nearly two hours talking with Risinger on only one occasion, something he said was common in these kind of investigations, reviewed tapes of interviews with police and others and reviewed other information. His clinical opinion: delusional disorder, persecutory type, meaning Risinger believed he was being persecuted or conspired against. Parker said Risinger was competent to stand trial and met the criteria for mental disease, but that “despite his psychosis, he did appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions at the time.”

He said Risinger was actively delusional before, during and after the fire.

“He saw meaning and messages from the normal activity around him,” said Parker. “He is fascinated by numbers and what he thinks they mean. He sees messages in symbols and mentioned the American eagle the victim was wearing … They will interpret things differently … The numbers on the clock my mean something that to others would just be the time … They attach unusual significance to everyday objects … [and] perceive messages from things they hear.” Parker said these beliefs are called “ideas of reference,” and that these ideas of reference led him to identify the “demon” he had to destroy.

Parker defined delusions as fixed, firmly held, false beliefs, different from hallucinations in that hallucinations are false sensory signals, such as hearing or seeing things that aren’t there, rather than attaching special meanings to things that are. He said Risinger denied hearing voices.

Parker said Risinger’s sister corroborated this. He said she told police Risinger had been becoming more and more strange and Tyler Davidson had said in a recorded interview with police Risinger had been getting “nuttier and nuttier” as he interacted with him that day.

“His delusions are inextricably linked to actions that brought him here today,” said Parker. “He didn’t want to talk about what happened. He was willing to talk about what he’d been thinking about … He talked about why things happened and why he thought the victim was a demon and why that was a threat.”

Parker added that he saw Risinger’s leaving the scene as evidence he may have known setting the fire to kill Givan was wrong. He said, after hearing Davidson’s interview with police, Risinger knew the police could have been called to extract Givan and he didn’t need to resort to setting the trailer on fire.

“He still had a basic understanding of wrongfulness, but was actively psychotic at the time,” Parker said.

Parker also mentioned some head and scalp injuries inflicted not terribly long before the events of March 14, 2017, but said it would be unusual for a relatively minor head injury to cause a delusional disorder.

Parker said Risinger was delusional during the time of his evaluation. He was much calmer than he was on the recorded interview with police, but as Parker began to ask more about what happened the night of the fire, his delusion became more evident. Parker said Risinger was not on any medications at the time of the evaluation.

A juror submitted a question as well as the attorneys and judge.

“Aren’t most people who commit crime psychotic or delusional?”

“I hope not,” replied Parker. “Only about 3 percent of violent crime is committed by people with a mental illness. Those with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime. There may be people who think they can get away with things, but I wouldn’t call that delusional. So no, most criminals are not delusional or psychotic.

“The insanity defense is a defense of last resort,” continued Parker. “It’s used in fewer than 1 percent of cases and rarely raised, especially in Indiana.”

The court expects to hear testimony from psychologist Heather Henderson-Galligan, who also examined Risinger, Friday morning, after which the jury will hear closing arguments and begin deliberation.

To read about previous days' court procedings, read Tuesday and Wednesday's reports on salemleader.com.

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