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Monday, February 27, 2012

The Red Sash Murder Case

     In September 1995, the daughter-in-law of Josephine Galbraith, found the 76-year-old dead in the guest bedroom of her Palo Alto, California home. The dead woman's husband, 79-year-old Nelson Galbraith, a retired music school owner and insurance salesman, said he was watching TV in another room when she passed away. A detective from the Palo Alto Police Department and an investigator from the Santa Clara Coroner's Office arrived at the scene to find Josephine lying face-up on the bed with three superficial cuts on her left wrist, and a red bathrobe sash tied around her neck. Next to her body, investigators found a bloody eight-inch knife, a razor blade with some blood on it, and a white, 5-gallon bucket containing a small quantity of blood.

     The bathrobe sash, 62 inches in length, had been tightly wrapped around Josephine Galbraith's neck three times. After each wrap, the sash had been tied with a double-knot. The three cuts on her wrist, referred to as "hesitation marks," were typical of the half-hearted attempt of a suicidal person who couldn't bring herself to make the deeper, more painful slashes necessary to cause death by bleeding. There was no suicide note. The coroner's investigator, a man who had been on the job 28 years, recognized the scene as a suicide. The Palo Alto detective, based on the evidence at the scene, agreed with this assessment.

     The investigators figured that if Josephine Galbraith had been murdered, the killer would not have made the hesitation cuts. Moreover, the pattern of blood spatter did not suggest a struggle. And the presence of the bucket intended to make the scene less messy, was not consistent with a murder scene. Both investigators also knew that while people cannot manually strangle themselves (they pass out before they die), people can strangle themselves to death by ligature--the use of a rope, electrical wire, necktie, or other length of cloth such as a bathrobe sash. They also knew that Josephine Galbraith's death would have been slow enough to allow her to wrap and tie the sash three times. Given the nature of the people involved, and the physical evidence at the scene, the investigators had no doubt that this woman had taken her own life.

     Two days after the death, Dr. Angelo Ozoa, the Santa Clara County Coroner, performed the autopsy, a procedure that took him only 45 minutes. Dr. Ozoa found the cause of death to be "asphyxiation by ligature." This did not surprise anyone. What did shock a lot of people, including the investigators, was his manner of death ruling: "strangled by assailant." Dr. Ozoa had based this finding on two assumptions: Josephine Galbraith was too old and frail to have tied the three knots so tightly; and even if she did have the strength, she wouldn't have remained conscious long enough to complete the task. Since Nelson Galbraith was the only other person in the house at the time of his wife's death, if she had been murdered, he must have been the assailant.

     Just days before her death Josephine Galbraith had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, an illness that five years earlier had caused the slow and painful death of her sister. Even before the diagnosis, she had told friends and relatives that she wanted to kill herself. She had informed one of her sons that she would like to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and asked another son, a physician, to provide her with the drugs to end her life. He had refused.

     Nelson Galbraith, the man implicitly incriminated by Dr. Ozoa's manner of death ruling, had severe arthritis of the hands, which would have made it difficult, in not impossible, for him to have tied the knots around his wife's neck. Moreover, there was nothing in Galbraith's background, or in his relationship with his wife, that made him a likely murderer. Investigators, urged on by the county prosecutor's office, nevertheless pushed forward with the case against him, albeit at a snail's pace. In the meantime, Mr. Galbraith's life became a living hell. He complained to a journalist about being referred to in the media as the "Red Sash Murderer," and was spending thousands of dollars on his defense. (Ultimately, his defense costs would reach more than $300,000.)

     Palo Alto Police, guns drawn, stormed Mr. Galbraith's house in January 1997, and hauled the 81-year-old suspect away on the charge of first degree murder. In August 1998, almost three years after his wife's death, Nelson Galbraith, who had been allowed to make bail, went on trial for murder. The prosecution's key witness, Dr. Ozoa, told the jury that in all his years as a forensic pathologist, he had never heard of a woman killing herself by ligature. Suicide by ligature, however, is a well-recognized method of death that is well documented in textbooks and scientific journals.

     The defense called to the stand forensic pathologists who disagreed with Dr. Ozoa, and argued that the defendant could not have physically committed the crime. Following two and a half weeks of testimony, the jury deliberated for one day and returned a verdict of not guilty. Following the acquittal, the prosecutor's office sought the opinion of a forensic pathologist in the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office regarding the manner of Josephine Galbraith's death. The pathologist agreed with the defense experts: the poor woman had killed herself.

     Nelson Galbraith, convinced he had been maliciously prosecuted, sued Dr. Ozoa for $10 million. To bolster his case, Mr Galbraith spent $10,000 to have his wife's body exhumed and sent to Salt Lake City to be examined by Dr. Todd Grey, the medical examiner for the state of Utah. According to Dr. Grey, Dr. Ozoa's incorrect finding of homicide was predicated on an incomplete autopsy. Ozoa had, among other things, neglected to dissect the dead woman's neck, a procedure that could have helped determine how long it had taken her to die. He had also failed to interpret the swelling in her brain, and the broken blood vessels in her face and eyes, as evidence of a slow death. Dr. Ozoa, when confronted with Dr Grey's opinion of his work in the Galbraith case, insisted he had performed a complete autopsy, and that the woman had been murdered.

     In 2002, almost seven years after Dr. Ozoa's autopsy in the Galbraith case, the Medical Board of California, citing Dr Ozoa's work in that case, voted to suspend the 77-year-old's license to practice medicine in the state. Two months later, Nelson Galbraith died. Two of his sons kept the civil case alive, and in 2008, Santa Clara County settled the matter for $400,000. 

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