Forensic expert testifies that Piolo’s death should be changed to “undetermined”

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Dr. Joseph Cohen said Dr. Aurelio Espinola’s autopsy findings were “problematic.”

Guam – The defense presented their first expert witness in the Mark Torre Jr. murder trial, a forensic pathologist who countered the autopsy findings of Guam’s Medical Examiner Dr. Aurelio Espinola.

Dr. Joseph Cohen said the manner of death of Sgt. Elbert Piolo’s autopsy should be changed from homicide to undetermined.

Last week Espinola testified with “100 percent certainty” that Piolo died not of a suicide but by homicide—meaning he was killed by another human being.

“I disagree,” asserted Cohen. “The determination was made three days after the death of Mr. Piolo. Clearly, not much evidence that we have before us today was available then.”

Cohen says that the cause of death and trajectory of the bullet that passed through Piolo was of concern. Espinola’s report states that Piolo died of a “contact gunshot wound of chest into abdomen.” However, Dr. Cohen argues that upon his review of the autopsy photos, he found no indication that the gun actually made direct contact with Piolo’s skin.

This, he points out, is also supported by FBI analysis in which the FBI determined that the firearm, based on the evidence, was about three inches away from Piolo when it was fired. Then there’s the trajectory of the bullet.

“Well the angle would be in somewhere near 45 degrees compared to the horizontal to vertical axis, but it’s sharply downward,” said Cohen, adding that it would “absolutely not” be in a 90 degree angle. “If I saw a body with this injury and knew nothing about the case, I would think that if the person was standing he would’ve been shot from the stairway up above.”

He also says that there are many variables to the case that factor into determining the manner of death.

“So much rides on it that people’s livelihoods are on the line and it’s not a clear cut homicide like a gang shooting or stabbing that’s witnessed by others in a fight. This is very different and I’ve had cases like this where I would issue a pending death certificate for as long as it takes to get that information before amending the death certificate,” Cohen noted.

In fact, he says that based on the defense’s reenactment of the shooting, a suicide seems probable.

Asked what the defense reenactment tells him, “That it was just that. That it was a suicide attempt that succeeded … and it’s based on circumstances, the background of individuals, it’s very important … talking about the historical information, relationships, psychology, drinking.”

Cross examination was brief for the prosecution. Lead prosecutor Phil Tydingco had only a few questions to ask. While Cohen could not conclude based on his analysis of Espinola’s autopsy that the manner of death was a homicide, he acknowledged that he also could not conclude that the manner could be ruled an “accident” or “suicide” either.

With that, Tydningco had one last question: “You did not perform the autopsy of Bert Piolo’s body, right?”

“That’s right,” Cohen agreed.

And while Dr. Espinola ruled with 100 percent certainty that Piolo’s death was a homicide, Cohen said he would have ruled Piolo’s manner of death undetermined with 75 to 80 percent certainty. 

 

“I think that this death certificate should be amended to undetermined,” Cohen concluded.

Trial resumes Wednesday morning during which the defense’s psychiatric expert, Dr. Pablo Stewart, will take the stand.