Testifying in the trial of the two accused killers of John Laubach, a defense forensic expert said the 57-year-old gay man died from a heart attack and not asphyxiation as the prosecution expert said.
“He had a heart attack,” Dr. Mark Taff told a Manhattan jury on October 19. “Specifically, he had a cardiac arrhythmia.”
Edwin Faulkner, 33, and Juan Carlos Martinez-Herrera, 30, are charged in the March 2012 homicide with depraved indifference murder; felony murder, based on them causing Laubach’s death in the course of committing another felony; and kidnapping and robbery, the charges that form the basis for the felony murder charge.
Saying victim had heart attack, Dr. Mark Taff lends weight to Juan Carlos Martinez-Herrera’s claim death was an accident
Taff’s testimony bolsters the defense case that argues that Laubach asked to have Faulkner choke him while he performed oral sex on Martinez-Herrera. His heart attack occurred during that sex making his death an accident, the defense argues. Since it is not legally possible to rob or kidnap a dead person, the two are not guilty of robbery or kidnapping and so they are not guilty of felony murder nor did they cause Laubach’s death by acting with depraved indifference.
Taff’s conclusion of an accidental death matches the testimony given by Martinez-Herrera on October 16. The gay couple panicked after realizing Laubach was dead and placed duct tape on his face and bound his hands and feet, Martinez-Herrera said. They filled two suitcases with Laubach’s property and fled to Florida where they were arrested roughly two weeks after Laubach was found dead in his Chelsea apartment. The couple still had much of Laubach’s property in their possession when they were arrested.
Taff reviewed the autopsy report and related records and listened to the testimony of the prosecution’s expert, Dr. Jason Graham, the first deputy chief in the city medical examiner’s office. Laubach had “pre-existing hypertensive cardiac disease,” Taff said. The jury learned from friends of Laubach’s who testified that he had a stroke about six years ago.
Taff reached his conclusion by excluding other causes, such as asphyxiation, and by observing that the duct tape that covered Laubach’s face, which the prosecution asserts caused him to choke to death, covered only his mouth so Laubach could breath.
“The duct tape did not cover the nose,” Taff said, responding to questions from Daniel Parker, the attorney for Martinez-Herrera. “That was a major finding.”
There were no injuries to Laubach’s nose, which might occur if someone was holding his nostrils closed. Aside from small bruises on one arm and an abrasion on his head, there was no evidence of a struggle that might occur if he were fighting the two men or trying to remove the tape. Laubach had a small hemorrhage on his left wrist.
The prosecution has argued that there was sufficient blockage of Laubach’s breathing, either by the positioning of his body or other means, to cause his lungs to fill with fluid and that he effectively drowned. A set of human lungs typically weighs about 900 grams. Due to the fluid, Laubach’s lungs weighed nearly 1,800 grams. Laubach’s eyes had petechial hemorrhages, or small burst blood vessels, that are associated with asphyxiation deaths. Taff said these things are also found in heart attack victims.
“You can also have those happen in someone who has had a heart attack,” Taff said.
Cross-examined by Lanita Hobbs, the assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case with Juan Abreu, also an assistant district attorney, Taff said that the heart attack could have come during a robbery or a kidnapping.
“Maybe being thrown to a bed during the course of a robbery might cause a heart attack, correct?” Hobbs asked. Taff said, “Yes.”
“Two men tying you to a bed might cause a heart attack?,” Hobbs asked.
“If it’s against your will, yes,” Taff said.
As the charges in the case show, the prosecution does not assert that the couple intended to kill Laubach. The duct tape and bound hands and feet may have been meant to keep Laubach silent and unable to contact police while giving the couple time to flee. But the prosecution will likely argue during October 20 closing arguments that the tape and bindings caused Laubach’s death during a planned kidnapping and robbery.
After jurors were dismissed on October 19, the defense asked that the jury be allowed to consider second-degree manslaughter, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, criminally negligent homicide, which carries a sentence of up to four years in prison, and petit larceny, which is a misdemeanor charge akin to shoplifting. Jurors do negotiate verdicts among themselves, and lesser charges make compromises possible.
Hobbs and Bonnie Wittner, the judge in the case, appear to be inclined to ask the jury to weigh only the more serious charges and force jurors to choose between the defense story of an accidental death, and so acquit the two defendants, or the prosecution story of a death caused by depraved indifference or in the course of a robbery or kidnapping and convict on murder charges that carry a sentence of 25-to-life in prison.
“If he tied a dead man to a bed, he did nothing,” Hobbs said. “If he was alive, it’s so far beyond negligence.”
“If they did everything post-mortem, he’s not guilty,” she said. “If the jury wants to acquit these people, so be it.”