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Marine’s Defense Attacks Findings of 2nd Autopsy in Death of His Wife

Times Staff Writer

The defense attorney for an El Toro Marine accused of murdering his wife sought Friday to discredit the finding of a second autopsy, which concluded that the woman died of asphyxiation before she could have hanged herself last May.

Gunnery Sgt. Murray Payne was arrested 3 days after the second autopsy, which was conducted by naval authorities Nov. 29. A previous autopsy by the Riverside County coroner’s office concluded that Ella Mae Payne had killed herself by hanging last May 10.

But defense attorney Kevin McDermott attacked the second autopsy’s finding during the second day of Payne’s preliminary hearing on the murder charges, citing a deposition from the naval coroner’s superior officer disputing the conclusions.

The military hearing, which began Thursday at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, is being held to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a court-martial of Payne, 40, on charges of killing his wife, then trying to make her death appear to be a suicide by hanging her in the garage of their Corona home.

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Corona police said the 39-year-old woman’s body was found about 4 a.m. hanging from the rafters by Payne and the couple’s 22-year-old son, Darrell. At Friday’s hearing, the prosecution said that lack of physical evidence on her body consistent with hanging proved that Payne killed his wife by suffocation.

But McDermott contended that Ella Payne committed suicide because of financial problems and, according to psychological and medical studies, was a typical suicide-by-hanging case.

At the hearing, Navy Capt. Glenn N. Wagner from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington testified under questioning by the prosecution that after reviewing information from the first autopsy done last May, and performing a second autopsy, he believed that Ella Payne was dead by asphyxiation before the hanging. He also concluded that the knot on the rope found around her neck--similar to a bowline knot used by the military in rappelling--was too complicated to be tied by an ordinary person.

The prosecution submitted as evidence a videotape of the second autopsy in which Wagner explained to Maj. R.W.G. Grove, the naval investigating officer, that he found the complexity of the knot the most bothersome issue in the case.

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“If there had been any other knot I would have agreed with (the Riverside coroner’s) findings of suicide,” Wagner testified Friday.

But in his cross-examination, McDermott questioned the validity and strength of Wagner’s medical findings in the case. McDermott attacked Wagner’s testimony with a contradictory deposition from Dr. James Luke, chief medical examiner for the state of Connecticut and Wagner’s mentor.

McDermott said that Luke, in his comments about the autopsy findings, disputed most of Wagner’s conclusions, stating that the concrete evidence presented did, in fact, show signs of a suicide by hanging.

Wagner also testified Friday that seven of his peers who reviewed his findings “basically felt that the evidence presented in the autopsy was soft, and (that) it could have been a death by hanging.”

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