Forensic pathologist disagrees with Hamilton County medical examiner during trial of man accused of killing Hixson girl

Staff Photo La Shawn Pagán / Executive Assistant District Attorney Cameron Williams listens to testimony from David Shell, the grandfather of 2 year old Annie Burkett Shell, during the Benjamin Brown trial on Feb. 9 in Hamilton County.

Jurors heard from famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden on Friday before beginning deliberations Saturday in the trial of a man accused of murder and aggravated child abuse in the 2018 death of a 2-year-old Hixson girl.

Baden did not examine the body of Annie Burkett Shell, who prosecutors say was violently shaken by her babysitter's boyfriend, Benjamin Brown, on the morning of Aug. 9, 2018, and died 12 days later. However, Baden did study the medical records and autopsy report on the toddler's death.

The former chief medical examiner for the city of New York has testified in numerous high-profile trials - including those of O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector, Jeffrey Epstein and Derek Chauvin.

Baden told Judge Barry Steelman's court that he disagreed with Hamilton County Chief Medical Examiner James Metcalfe's opinion that shaken baby syndrome was the child's cause of death.

"Because it's an impact that causes the syndrome, not shaking," Baden said.

Baden suggested the girl's death could have been caused by an infection resulting from an untreated tear in the girl's esophagus.

"It happened before she went to sleep the night before and gradually builds up," he said. "Or when she first gets up in the morning, or later, after she gets there [her babysitter's home]."

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Baden said the time of the girl's injury could therefore not be accurately determined unless a thorough examination had been done of a blood clot removed from the girl's head.

On Thursday evening, Metcalfe had explained to jurors the evidence he saw in his autopsy on Annie Shell that led him to believe she had been shaken.

In his testimony, Metcalfe detailed internal bruising consistent with blunt force trauma to the girl's head and torso. Early into his testimony, the girl's grandparents exited the courtroom as Metcalfe shared the grim details of the injuries that led to their granddaughter's death.

photo Staff Photo La Shawn Pagán / defense attorney Kevin Loper listens to testimony of former Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York Michael Baden during the Benjamin Brown trial on Feb. 11.

"Bleeding around the spinal cord cavity, bleeding mostly in the tissue around the spinal cord cavity, and the tissue around the spinal cord cavity and the dura of the spinal cord," Metcalfe said. "Bleeding around the optic nerves, covering of the optic nerve had bleeding of it."

"How can one get an injury like that?" Assistant District Attorney Andrew Cole asked during his examination of the expert witness.

"From shaking," Metcalfe said.

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Metcalfe proceeded to demonstrate on a life-size doll for the jury to understand how Annie could have been injured in such a way. The doll was a few inches shorter than Annie at the time of her injuries.

Metcalfe also testified to finding bruising in front of the heart "that was caused by blunt force trauma. Aligning with the contusion to the spinal cord," along with finding a "split in the esophagus two centimeters from the diaphragm, around 2 centimeters long."

"Could a fall from the pantry cause these injuries?" Assistant District Attorney Andrew Cole asked, referring to defense attorneys' arguments that Annie could have fallen from the open-face pantry at the Shells' home in the days before she was picked up by her babysitter, Brandi Giannunzio, and left in the care of Brown.

On Wednesday, jurors had been shown security camera footage of the girl climbing in such a way.

"All those injuries? No, these injuries are inflicted," Metcalfe said. He also said the level of internal injuries she suffered were from constant and severe motion, not a single blow like that suffered in a fall.

Following Metcalfe's testimony, the defense moved for Brown to be acquitted of all charges on the basis that the evidence did not directly implicate Brown. Steelman denied the motion, stating that while the evidence was circumstantial, the injuries sustained by Annie Shell were sustained while she was in Brown's care.

During a short break in the trial Friday, Brown could be seen with red eyes after speaking to one of his attorneys right outside the courtroom.

If Brown is convicted on the charges of felony murder and aggravated child abuse, he could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.