Forensic expert: Bernstein’s head injury not life threatening


“It’s highly likely she fell and hit her head…an assailant isn’t going to hit a person in the head one time,” testified Forensic Pathologist Doctor Joseph Cohen.

Guam – “A poor work up.” That is what Doctor Joseph Cohen called the autopsy report conducted by Chief Medical Examiner Doctor Aurelio Espinola on Shelly Bernstein.

Testifying during Allan Agababa’s second murder trial for allegedly slaying his mother, Cohen stated that an autopsy of a suspected homicide victim should include x-rays, toxicology analysis, photographs, an examination of clothing and the crime scene. But Bernstein’s autopsy report did not include any x-rays, analysis of the level of Fentanyl in her body, photographs of organs, analysis of Bernstein’s clothing or the suspected biological matter discovered at the scene.

“That’s my concern. These elements of the scene investigation have not been considered, in my opinion, by the medical examiner in effort to qualify this death as a homicide, an accident or an undetermined,” said Cohen.

Dr. Espinola had ruled Bernstein’s death as a homicide and that her cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. But Cohen disagrees. In fact, he testified that the trauma to Bernstein’s head was not life threatening, further stating that he does not believe she received the injury while in bed. So how did she get there?

“If these other red marks are her blood then that would confirm that either she walked from another location to her bed, laid down in bed continued to bleed and then the drug toxicity took over and basically caused her respiratory arrest along with some bleeding,” theorized the forensic pathologist.

He says it is highly likely she fell and hit her head, adding that an assailant is not going to hit a person in the head one time. He was adamant that if Bernstein was not under the influence of drugs she would have survived the head injury, adding that there was no injury to her brain.

But what about the contrecoup injury discovered on the back of her head? Well, according to Cohen, no such injury existed. And if there was, as Espinola concluded, Cohen says the contrecoup phenomenon occurs by falling and hitting a stationary object.

According to Cohen, Espinola downplayed the drugs discovered in Bernstein’s urine and placed emphasis on the head injury.

“It is imperative that blood samples be tested on all homicide or suspicious deaths in able to place whatever significance there may be on the drugs. So using these urine test results does not help us very much. Although there are two drugs that appear to be in high levels,” stated Cohen.

Those drugs were hydrocodone and oxycodone, which are opiates that slow the breathing and can lead to respiratory arrest. But as Cohen points out, there was no testing of fentanyl despite three patches being discovered on her extremities.

While he believes that the drugs, in conjunction with the non-lethal head injury, led to her death. The lack of evidence means that the possibilities are open and if he was to make a determination he would have ruled her death as undetermined.



SOURCEJolene Toves
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Jolene Toves
Jolene joined the PNC team in 2017, as a producer, co-anchor and investigative reporter covering law enforcement, courts and crimes. Notable coverage includes the Ehlert case, the Mark Torre Jr. trial, the Allan Agababa trial, exclusive pieces on the Life of a Drug Dealer/Addict, and Life behind bars...the story of Honofre Chargualaf and Kevin Cruz. In 2019, she was promoted to Assistant News Director and Lead Anchor. From 2015 to 2017 she served as Public Relations and Promotions Manager, for the Hotel Nikko Guam handling local radio and advertorial promotions, as well as produced and directed tv commercials for the hotel. Prior to this she worked with KUAM for three years as a reporter and segment host. She began her journalism career in 2012, working with Glimpses of Guam contributing to the Guam Business Magazine, R&R magazine, MDM magazine and the Marianas Business Journal.