WARNING: This story contains details that may be disturbing
Could drowning have played a role in the death of seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa of Langley?
That was the question Crown prosecutor Christopher McPherson put to pediatric neuropathologist Christopher Dunham in New Westminster Supreme Court on Wednesday, April 7 during the first-degree murder trial of KerryAnn Lewis, Aaliyah’s mother.
The Crown has held that Aaliyah was killed on July 22, 2018 after Lewis gave the child a combination of prescription and over-the-counter drugs and then drowned or attempted to drown her in her apartment’s bathtub.
The trial has already heard from the witnesses who discovered Aaliyah’s body next to the tub, wearing a damp bathrobe.
Dunham, who practices at B.C. Children’s Hospital, was brought in to testify for the defense. He said that Aaliyah’s death, at least in part, was likely linked to a pre-existing condition, hydrocephalus, which means that her brain was swollen.
An autopsy showed that before her death, Aaliyah suffered blows to the head which resulted in some swelling.
She also had froth in her lungs and water in a sinus cavity, and had both prescription and over-the-counter drugs in her system that would have had a sedative effect.
McPherson pressed Dunham on whether there could be multiple possible causes for Aaliyah’s death, including the original autopsy’s finding that drowning combined with blows to the head and the drugs in Aaliyah’s system led to her death.
“I would disagree with components of that, and I might state it in different ways,” Dunham testified. “Blunt force trauma is definitely playing a role in this case. The pre-existing condition is definitely playing a role in this case.”
But McPherson also asked whether lack of oxygen from drowning alone could have killed Aaliyah – with the brain swelling caused by the hydrocephalus and the blows to the head sometime before that.
“I suppose that’s plausible, although again, in that scenario, the drowning incident wouldn’t have any impact on the brain, and we wouldn’t know how the drowning occurred,” Dunham said.
The case was not a simple one, Dunham admitted.
McPherson noted that some cases may have an obvious cause of death, such as a gunshot, but there was no specific single cause in Aaliyah’s death, making it more complicated.
“I take it this is actually one of those sort of cases, it’s not a straightforward case,” McPherson said.
“No, it’s a complicated case,” Dunham replied.
He later suggested that accidental interpretations of Aaliyah’s death were possible given the evidence.
“The role of the medications in the system could definitely have played a role in the ultimate demise as well,” Dunham said. “How so? It’s unclear. Could those medications have made her more drowsy leading to a fall and the blunt force trauma? That’s plausible.”
After Dunham’s testimony wrapped up Wednesday morning, prosecutor Kristen LeNoble asked Justice Martha Devlin for permission to call one last witness, despite the fact that the Crown rested its case in November.
The Crown wants to hear from Dr. Marc Del Bigio, a University of Manitoba neuropathologist, as a rebuttal witness to Dunham.
The trial was expected to wrap up last fall, but delays due to COVID-19 illnesses among the witnesses, Lewis’s health issues, and additional witnesses saw it extended.
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