A forensic pathologist who is a key defense witness in the manslaughter trial of Betty Young Davies testified Thursday that he has doubts about his own competence and that he erred in his findings in another Orange County murder trial.
"Didn't you state in a prior court proceeding that your work on that case could be classified as 'sloppy pathology?' " Deputy Dist. Atty. Lew Rosenblum asked in a scathing cross-examination of Dr. Irving Root.
"Yes," replied Root, a San Bernardino County forensic pathologist and frequent expert witness.
"Do you consider yourself to be a competent pathologist?" Rosenblum asked at another point.
"Yes," Root replied. After a pause, he added, "I guess. . . . "
"So you're not sure?" the prosecutor said.
"I'm not sure," Root replied.
Under questioning from defense attorney Marshall M. Schulman, Root later said that he was not sloppy or incompetent but was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with himself. Outside the courtroom, Root declined to comment to a reporter.
Davies, 59, of Newport Beach is charged with vehicular manslaughter in the 1989 death of her stepdaughter's husband, James Ward.
The prosecution contends that Davies ran into Ward with her Mercedes-Benz, cracking his head against the windshield, and then sped away. Ward died three days later.
The defense contends that Davies' car did not strike Ward, and that the windshield of the Mercedes was cracked when Ward struck it with a cordless telephone that has now disappeared.
"The young man climbed up on the car and bashed in the windshield with the mysteriously missing portable telephone," Schulman explained during a break in the proceedings.
Another defense witness, Charles Thompson, a traffic accident reconstruction expert, testified earlier in the trial that the windshield was cracked by "a small, hard object" which could have been a cordless telephone.
Root testified that Ward's injuries are inconsistent with the prosecution's theory, and that his injuries were caused by hitting the road after he fell off the hood of the car.
Root's credibility as an expert witness has been questioned in two other recent Orange County cases. Both resulted in convictions, and Rosenblum alluded to both in his cross-examination.
After the trial of Nicholas Aranda six weeks ago, one juror said the panel "did not believe Dr. Root's testimony had any credibility at all."
Root's medical testimony was also contradicted in the murder trial of James M. Ferris, according to the prosecutor in that case. "It didn't look too good in front of the jury," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Marion said. Root acknowledged Thursday that his work in that case could be classified as sloppy.
The court proceedings Thursday were unusually heated, with Schulman and Rosenblum openly hostile to each other. At several points, Orange County Superior Court Judge James K. Taylor called the two attorneys into his chambers to avoid bickering in front of the jury.
At one point, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeoffrey Robinson, who had cross-examined Root in the Aranda case, entered the courtroom to give a document to Rosenblum. Schulman strenuously objected to Robinson sitting in the courtroom to observe the proceedings, and Robinson agreed to leave.
Root has previously stated that Robinson "has a personal vendetta against me."
During the cross-examination, Rosenblum asked Root, "Haven't you testified in murder cases and later said that you were embarrassed by your testimony?"
"Yes," Root replied.
At another point, the prosecutor asked, "Haven't you testified, in this county . . . that you made a mistake in court in a murder case about your findings?"
"Yes," Root replied.
Rosenblum then read from the transcript of the Aranda trial, at which Root was asked whether he considered himself a sloppy pathologist and replied, "I don't think (so), but I really wonder. The more I do this, the more I see what's going on out there and see myself through other eyes, the more terrified I become."
At one point, Root testified that he disagreed with other doctors about whether it was Ward's rib or his clavicle that was broken. Later, under questioning from Rosenblum, Root acknowledged that he was not qualified to read and interpret the X-rays.
Schulman later asked Root, "You're telling this jury here that you think you may be an incompetent?"
"I guess I would classify myself as a perfectionist and I realize the frustrations, how difficult it is to achieve perfection," Root replied, later addding, "It is a problem."
Asked whether he had been "sloppy" in the Davies case, Root replied: "I think I have gone through this in as much detail as I can. I certainly have not been deliberately remiss."
Root also insisted that he never promised to render an expert opinion that would be favorable to the defense and had not been coached about his testimony.
The defense has indicated it still has several witnesses to call. Schulman has not said whether Davies will testify in her own defense.