Research conducted by a team at Hayes + Associates, Inc. , a Corvallis, OR, consulting firm specializing in injury biomechanics, was instrumental in the return of a guilty verdict by a Washington state jury in the October 2012 trial of a 29-year-old woman accused of killing her boyfriend’s three-year-old daughter.
With analysis founded in the laws of physics, fall biomechanics and anatomy, testimony by Wilson C. Hayes, Ph.D., the firm’s president, demonstrated that Autumn Franks’ fatal head injuries were caused not by a fall from a couch precipitated by the family’s pit bull, but most likely by abuse inflicted by Leanne Bechtel, who was 24 and the child’s live-in caregiver at the time of the 2008 assault.
Bechtel had consistently maintained that the family’s overexcited family dog, Dozer, accidentally knocked the girl off the couch while she was home alone with Autumn, and that, after she landed on her head, Bechtel was unable to revive her. The reconstruction of the alleged event by Hayes + Associates demonstrated that the child’s massive skull fracture would not have resulted from her short fall onto a carpeted surface.
Coverage by Tacoma’s News Tribune noted that “every doctor who testified on behalf of the state – a list that included the county’s former medical examiner and the emergency room doctors who treated Autumn – said it was their opinion the girl died from trauma brought on by a violent assault.” Pierce County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lori Kooiman’s closing remarks focused on the “one in a million chance” that Autumn’s injuries happened as Bechtel had described. As Kooiman told the jury, the girl’s “constellation of injuries,” injuries most often seen in car accident victims, vividly told the story without further need for prosecutorial explanation.
After hearing testimony by Dr. Hayes, medical experts, and attending doctors called by the state, the jury agreed, rejecting Bechtel’s narrative of the event and finding her guilty of second-degree murder. She was sentenced November 16 to 19½ years in prison.