BENNINGTON -- A manslaughter trial involving the death of an infant that was expected to continue all of this week and into the next has been put off until at least September.
The trial of Russ C. Van Vleck, 28, who pleaded not guilty to manslaughter in March of last year, heavily involves the use of expert witnesses by both state prosecutors and Van Vleck's attorney, William Wright.
Van Vleck was charged after his infant son's death was ruled a homicide. State medical examiners said there was bleeding in his skull that could only have been caused by trauma within 24 hours of his death. The state has accused Van Vleck of causing the trauma, while Van Vleck has argued his son died from other causes.
Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville said it wasn't until Friday that an expert of Wright's was deposed and what his testimony would consist of was learned. Rainville told Judge David Howard that the witness, Dr. Ronald Uscinski, a Maryland nuerosurgeon, would be presenting "junk science" to the jury and didn't want him to testify. She said her own experts did not have time to review what Uscinski was expected to say.
Wright argued that the state was aware of the defense's evidence and had been for some time.
There was some talk of Uscinski's testimony going through a "Daubert hearing," which is a process in which a judge hears argument on the veracity of the science behind an expert witness' testimony and
determines if the jury should hear it. It was determined there was no time for such a hearing, as many of the experts called are practicing doctors and had tight schedules. Some of Wright's witnesses were medical examiners from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office in Florida, while the state had called Dr. Steven Shapiro of Burlington.
While arguing before the judge, Wright indicated Uscinski would be testifying that "shaken baby syndrome" is a myth in the terms it has been described in this and similar cases, and that an infant cannot die of shaking if the shaking wasn't bad enough to break the neck. He said his experts believe the child's brain had been bleeding since it was born.
Rainville called the theory "junk" and said her experts would say all children born with a "subdural hematoma" either suffer a severe and noticeable one at birth, or it clears up in a few weeks.
Howard said the court will try for a September trial date, and a new jury will be selected. He told the attorneys to let their experts know to set aside two-day slots, as the pace of a trial is not predictable.
"It's clearly not something we anticipated," said Wright in an interview. "It's not something my client wanted; he really wanted to get this behind him."
Wright, a former Bennington County state's attorney, said scheduling of expert witnesses has always been difficult.
He said he feels Howard's decision to reschedule the trial is a fair one, as it will allow the opportunity for all his experts to be heard. "It's anything but junk science, it's hard science," he said.
Wright said while he didn't plan for the trial to be put off, cases involving homicide in Vermont average about a year to resolve. "Nobody wanted this to happen, but will we be in a better position come September? Absolutely."
"In our view there was extremely late disclosure of a defense expert, and a failure to provide the records that defense expert relied on," said Rainville. "The records as of today have not been provided and we just learned of the expert's opinions on Friday."
She said she'd requested the testimony not be admitted and was ready to go to trial. "I'm very disappointed that it's not going forward," she said.
Howard said he doesn't feel either the state or the defense had attempted to put the trial off. Rainville asked that Van Vleck waive his right to a speedy trial, but Howard declined to ask him that. He said if Van Vleck raises the issue in the future, the court will address it, but said the delays have been caused by both sides.