Squeamish pathologist makes for very odd witness
Magnotta trial: Doctor’s reluctance to handle evidence in court makes madness harder to prove
It was an absolutely astonishing scene that could have been taken from Pathologists Gone Dainty, if there were such a flick.
In the witness box at the Luka Magnotta murder trial Friday was forensic pathologist Dr. Yann Daze.
He was being cross- examined by Magnotta’s lawyer, Luc Leclair.
And Daze, who has performed about 1,000 autopsies, was flatly refusing the lawyer’s requests to handle a couple of the weapons — a hammer and a small oscillating saw — allegedly used in the homicide and dismemberment of 33- yearold Lin Jun in order to demonstrate how they may or may not have caused some of the injuries.
First Leclair dug out of its cardboard box the Mastercraft saw that is an exhibit at trial. The small courtroom is kneedeep in such boxes containing dozens of exhibits.
“Do you have gloves?” Leclair asked as he futzed about. Daze simply stood there, as witnesses do in Quebec — in this province the witness box can fairly be called the witness stand.
“Will you pick up the saw, please?” Leclair asked.
“Not if I do not have to,” Daze said. “It is a contaminated tool and I will contaminate it more if I touch it.”
“Not if we put on gloves,” Leclair, who was wearing some, replied reasonably.
Meanwhile, he had plugged in the saw and was sort of holding it out towards Daze.
“What do you want me to do with this?” he said, his distaste evident.
“Can you hold it?” Leclair asked.
Daze just stood there, mute and immobile.
“You don’t want to hold it?” Leclair asked.
“No,” Daze said and though by now he had reluctantly donned a pair of black latex gloves, he said, “I don’t want to contaminate it.”
Then he said verbally what his body language was already screaming: “I’m not comfortable doing it in court.”
Leclair, the wind beneath his wings now, abruptly turned on the saw, and it duly made a loud saw-like noise.
“OK,” Leclair said. “Explain why it can’t cut soft tissue,” and Daze did, and there followed a brief discussion.
At one point, Leclair reminded Daze to remove his gloves and toss them, which the pathologist did.
After a bit more rustling in the boxes, Leclair was soon holding up an orange- andblack hammer.
“Any experience with this?” he asked. “What do you mean, experience?” Daze replied. “Have you ever handled a hammer?” Leclair asked. “Yes,” Daze said.
They had a brief discussion about whether one blow with such a hammer could have caused all the damage to Lin’s forehead and face, with Daze insisting there must have been multiple blows.
Then Leclair asked Daze to put on fresh gloves.
“I won’t need gloves,” he said, “if I’m only looking at the hammer.”
Leclair asked if he’d held this particular hammer during a recent meeting with Montreal police to discuss Lin’s injuries.
“Yes,” Daze said, “I took it in my hands once, and I remember it very well.”
Leclair was talking with the hammer in hand and Daze protested. “Again,” he said, “you’re contaminating the surfaces. Please be careful.”
Leclair agreeably slipped a glove under the hammer and then whacked it down hard on the desk.
A minute later, maybe two, Daze asked Quebec Superior Court Judge Guy Cournoyer, “Could I have more water?”
He was holding up the black water jug always placed beside witnesses. It is, notably, a lidded jug.
“I’m afraid this water was contaminated by the exhibits,” Daze said.
Now, the contamination issue itself is amusing.
A number of witnesses have handled the exhibits, including the hammer and saw, and some have donned fresh gloves between exhibits, and some have not, and there was one day when Leclair was handling a variety of exhibits while wearing the same pair of cream- coloured latex gloves.
Certainly, every conceivable test should surely have been run on every exhibit by this stage of the game. It’s not that evidence will be destroyed.
And if it’s vaguely unsanitary to touch tools that may have been used as weapons more than two years ago, it’s surely unlikely that water in a closed- lid jug could have been contaminated in any way by being in the general proximity of same.
Now, Daze himself set the table for all of this to unfold by something he volunteered Thursday in his examination-in-chief.
Prosecutor Louis Bouthillier asked if he’d seen the notorious video Magnotta made of the dismemberment and posted online.
Daze said he hadn’t, because he didn’t want to take the chance of “tainting” his opinion. But then he added, “To be candid, I see enough disgusting things at work. I don’t need to see more.”
Leclair asked him about that remark early in his cross on Friday. Daze merely repeated his earlier answer, word for word.
The lawyer told him “it was your duty to see the video” and Daze replied, “I’m in complete disagreement.” Leclair then said that Dr. Michael Pollanen, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist, who autopsied some of Lin’s body parts ( Magnotta had mailed them about, some to Ottawa) had told him, “You should have looked at the video.”
“Well,” Daze sniffed, “that’s his opinion.”
Magnotta has admitted the physical part of the charges he’s facing, including the killing and dismemberment of Lin, the making and posting online of the video and the mailing of his body parts.
But as Leclair said in his opening, Magnotta was allegedly so mentally ill at the time, and had been severely ill for years, that he shouldn’t be held criminally responsible.
The burden to prove that Magnotta was, essentially, in the grips of some madness is Leclair’s.
It is surely rendered more difficult when even professionals like Daze — a forensic pathologist whose business after all is death — are loathe to look at the evidence.