Uintah County murder victim suffered severe brain damage before death, doctor says
Geoff Liesik, Deseret News
VERNAL — A forensic pathologist testified Thursday that the brain damage inflicted on a man found dead in a Uintah County trailer park was so severe that he was likely rendered unconscious and unable to speak.
Dr. Erik Christensen, who conducted the autopsy on David Urrutia in January 2013, told jurors that the 38-year-old man died from blunt force trauma to the head that fractured his skull in multiple places and drove fragments of bone into his brain.
"I would expect him to be unconscious from these injuries, even if he were alive," Christensen testified, noting that he was not aware of any case where someone with an "impaling head injury" similar to Urrutia's retained the ability to speak.
Christensen's testimony came during the third day of a jury trial in the murder case against Urrutia's cousin, Jose Eduardo Leiva-Perez. It contradicted details in two of the three accounts Leiva-Perez has offered of the events that led to Urrutia's death.
Sandra Urrutia previously testified that Leiva-Perez phoned her on Jan. 6, 2013, to say that four men had severely beaten her brother. During the call, Leiva-Perez said he had talked with David Urrutia after the assault and had sought medical attention for him, Sandra Urrutia said.
Leiva-Perez later told investigators that three men beat his cousin, FBI agent Dave Ryan said Thursday. Again, Leiva-Perez said, he talked to Urrutia right after the attack and claimed that the injured man told him to go away and leave him alone.
Ryan said Leiva-Perez told him he went to a friend's house and saw ambulances and fire trucks arrive at the trailer he had shared with Urrutia. Then he took Urrutia's pickup truck and headed to California, according to an audio recording of Leiva-Perez's interview with Ryan and Uintah County Sheriff's Sgt. Leonard Isaacson that was played for the jury.
By the time that interview took place, investigators already had Christensen's preliminary autopsy findings and knew Urrutia would have been unable to speak, Isaacson said Thursday. They had also check with all the local ambulance services and hospitals and confirmed that Urrutia had not been treated in the days before his body was found on Jan. 7, 2013, the sergeant said.
"We knew immediately that was a lie," Isaacson said, when asked why he and Ryan challenged Leiva-Perez about his account of the incident during their interview.
The two veteran investigators continued to press Leiva-Perez, suggesting that he write "an apology" to Urrutia's family and "repent" for what he had done. Shortly after that, Leiva-Perez wrote a brief statement admitting that he had hit Urrutia three times in the head with a metal bar during an argument.
"We wanted the truth," Ryan testified when asked by Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas whether he and Isaacson were seeking a specific story from the defendant. "Whatever that was, we wanted the truth."
On cross-examination, defense attorney Bryan Sidwell questioned Ryan's use of the word "repent" during the interrogation. The FBI agent said he used it because he'd been told that Leiva-Perez had used the word himself during an earlier conversation with police.
Sidwell also raised questions about Ryan and Isaacson's promises that, if Leiva-Perez told them "the truth," things would be easier for him. Sidwell has maintained that his client was relying on assumptions about the police that were based on his experiences growing up in Guatemala.
William Furlong, a professor of Latin American studies at Utah State University, testified Thursday that Leiva-Perez likely believed the investigators had the ability to help him or harm him, given the "widespread corruption" that exists in Guatemala.
"If you know somebody, you'll get special treatment," said Furlong, who testified for the defense. "If you don't know somebody, you might pay them a bribe. If you don't have money for a bribe (and are accused of a crime) you might go to jail for years without a trial."
Under cross-examination, Furlong maintained because of Leiva-Perez's lack of education and his cultural background, he probably didn't understand what he was doing when he waived his Miranda rights and spoke with investigators.
In a 32-page ruling handed down in March, Judge Clark McClellan held that police properly advised Leiva-Perez of his rights and that his decision to waive those rights was "knowing and voluntary," as required by law. The judge also rejected defense claims that officers subjected Leiva-Perez to duress during questioning.
Leiva-Perez has been deported from the United States at least once before and was in the country illegally when Urrutia was killed, according to court records. His jury trial is expected to conclude Friday.
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