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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Betty Rice's Suspicious Death

     Betty Rice was 79 when she died on November 9, 2009 in her Sevierville, Tennessee mobile home. Elizabeth A. Ogle, Rice's 48-year-old niece by marriage, had moved from Chatsworth, Georgia to the Great Smoky Mountain region to care for her sick aunt. Ogle, who moved into the double-wide, had been taught by a hospice nurse how to administer the proper dosages of morphine to the dying woman.  Rice had been diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread throughout her body.

     Because of her age and illness, no one questioned the Sevier County coroner's ruling that Betty Rice had died a natural death from cardiac and respiratory arrest. This determination had been made by hospital physicians without an autopsy. A few days after her passing, the body was embalmed and buried.

     Two months after Betty Rice's death, some of her relatives informed the Sevier County Sheriff's Office of their suspicion that she had been murdered by Elizabeth Ogle. Not long before she died, Betty had added the live-in caregiver to her will. The suspicious relatives believed that Ogle had given Rice an overdose of morphine in order to inherit a portion of her estate which included the mobile home and some certificates of deposit.

     In January 2010, Sevier County Sheriff Ron Seals obtained a court order that allowed the exhumation of Betty Rice's remains for autopsy. Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, the Chief Medical Examiner for Knox County, and professor of pathology at the University of Tennessee, performed the autopsy. Dr. Mileusnic-Polchan, a native of Croatia, reported that Betty Rice's body, at the time of her death, contained a "lethal amount of morphine."

     Eight months after the autopsy, Sevier County prosecutor Jeremy Ball charged Elizabeth Ogle with first-degree murder. The entirely circumstantial case was based on the changed will, a signature that looked forged, Ogle's role as the only person in charge of Rice's morphine intake, and the excess amount of the narcotic in the dead woman's system. Elizabeth Ogle, held under $1 million bond, awaited her trial in the Sevier County Jail.

     On October 30, 2012, in his opening remarks to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Ball said that Betty Rice had died from "a liver full of morphine" shortly after the defendant had forged the old woman's signature on the new version of her last will and testament. To establish the forgery, the prosecutor put a FBI handwriting expert on the stand. According to the forensic document examiner, the signature in question was substantially different than signatures on greeting cards known to be Rice's. But on cross-examination by defense attorney Charles Poole, the document witness acknowledged that he couldn't declare that without a doubt the questioned signature was a forgery.

     The prosecution's key witness, medical examiner Mileusnic-Polchan, took the stand and testified that in her expert opinion, Betty Rice had died of a morphine overdose. Conceding on cross-examination that cancer had destroyed one of Rice's lungs, the medical examiner testified that the old woman had not died a natural death. In the forensic pathologist's opinion, Betty Rice had died of morphine poisoning, and by implication, criminal homicide.

     Defense attorney Poole, by asking Dr. Mileusnic-Polchaln how the presence of morphine can be ascertained from remains that had been embalmed, failed to attenuate the certainty of her conclusion.

     On November 3, after the prosecution rested its case, the defense put on the first of its three expert witnesses. Steven Karch, a cardiac toxicologist from San Francisco, testified that there was no scientific basis for determining, in the human liver, what was an abnormal level of morphine. Although this witness was not a forensic pathologist, he testified that Betty Rice's cause of death was probably heart failure.

     Dr. Gregory Davis, a medical examiner with the state of Kentucky, testified that he "respectfully but vehemently disagreed" with Dr. Mileusnic-Polchan's cause of death determination. After reviewing her autopsy report, Dr. Gregory came to the conclusion that Betty Rice had died due to complications from her cancer. The forensic pathologist also said that assuming the morphine had contributed to Rice's death, the patient could have self-administered the pain-killer.

     Dr. Davis was followed to the stand by a pharmacologist who opined that scientists had not established a way to determine abnormal levels of drugs in a person's body through liver analysis. Scientists had not figured out what an abnormal level of morphine was in a person's liver.

     At the close of testimony on the fourth day of the trial, circuit judge Rex Ogle (no relation to the defendant) took the case out of the hands of the jurors by issuing a directed verdict of acquittal. In the judge's opinion, the prosecution had not met its burden of proving a prima facie case.

     Elizabeth Ogle was released from custody and determined eligible to inherit pursuant to Betty Rice's will. 

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