Although it would have been better to decide its case was insufficient for conviction long before jury selection actually began, the prosecution in the Melissa Funte case looks like it made the right call in dismissing charges.
Dismissing murder charges just as a trial is beginning has got to be traumatic (even if welcome) for the defendant. It also begs the question of why the prosecution waited so long to decide it didn't have a case.
Melissa Gale Funte, a 21-year-old Floyd woman, was charged with first degree murder and child endangerment last summer after her infant son died. The charge was based chiefly on the findings by then Iowa Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas L. Bennett, who said the cause of death was a closed-head injury — the so-called shaken-slammed baby syndrome.
According to Doug Hammerand, an Iowa assistant attorney general who was helping prosecute the case, the state received information on the first day of jury selection when the trial was set to begin last week, that another independent pathologist was concerned there may be disagreement over Bennett's assessment of the cause of death.
The prosecution quickly sought the opinions of four other forensic pathologists, whose initial conclusions also disagreed with Bennett's.
In addition, the defense had half a dozen of its own expert witnesses set to dispute the cause of death.
With that much doubt as to the accuracy of the cause of death, the state quickly moved to dismiss charges, although it retained the option to file charges again after all the pathologists have a chance to examine the evidence more thoroughly.
It was a prudent move on the part of the prosecution once it recognized the weakness of its case, and it showed some concern for the defendant, rather than let the trial drag on anyway.
Bennett himself has been the subject of some controversy. In March, former Marshalltown baby sitter Mary Weaver was found innocent in a third trial on charges she killed an infant in her care. In that case, Bennett again was one of the key state witnesses, testifying the child died of shaken/slammed baby syndrome.
But another witness, Des Moines neurosurgeon Thomas Carlstrom, testified that Bennett is "overzealous" in his testimony about the shaken baby syndrome, and at least one juror said Carlstrom's testimony was key in acquitting Weaver.
In October, Bennett resigned as the state's medical examiner, over allegations he mismanaged the state office (although there were no accusations regarding Bennett's performance as a forensic pathologist, and in fact he still works for the state in that regard).
In light of the conflicting evidence, the Funte prosecution made the right decision in calling off the trial. There's still a question why it wasn't until the week the trial was to start that the conflicting evidence surfaced, but sometimes things just happen that way.
In any case, it appears the system worked, better late than never.