"Engineer enlisted scientific advances to aid Texas woman on death row," is the title of Chuck Lindell's report for the Sunday edition of the Austin American-Statesman. It's a must-read for its reporting on advances in scientific analysis of this and other cases.
Cathy Lynn Henderson was out of appeals and seven weeks from an April 2007 execution date when an unexpected phone call from a retired mechanical engineer changed everything, offering the former Travis County resident a potential path off death row.
Engineer Edwin Newberg was troubled when the Kansas City Star, serving Henderson's former hometown, published a front-page story about her capital murder conviction for the death of an infant in her care, 3-month-old Brandon Baugh.
Prosecution experts said Brandon's head injuries were too extensive to support Henderson's claim that she accidentally dropped the child about 4½ feet onto the concrete and tile floor of her Pflugerville-area home in 1994.
Newberg tracked down the defense lawyer quoted in the story, George Cumming of San Francisco, to explain that Henderson's alibi could be reinforced by biomechanics, an emerging field of study that measures the effect outside forces have on the human body.
"From an engineering viewpoint and from the damage that I heard about," it seemed possible that Henderson was not a murderer, Newberg recalled recently.
Intrigued, Cumming and the rest of Henderson's legal team — assembled by Sister Helen Prejean of "Dead Man Walking" fame and working without charge — found a leading expert in biomechanics and secured a hastily prepared affidavit asserting that even short falls can be fatal to infants.
The information prompted state District Judge Jon Wisser to delay Henderson's execution by 60 days to give defense lawyers time to more fully explore biomechanics for a new appeal, which they filed three weeks before the June 13, 2007, execution date.
With two days to spare — just as Brandon Baugh's parents were packing to witness the execution, hoping for closure — the state's highest criminal court stayed Henderson's lethal injection and directed Wisser to examine the new claims.
But last month, more than three years after the last hearing, Wisser sent his findings to the Court of Criminal Appeals, recommending that Henderson's conviction be thrown out and a new trial be ordered. Deprived of Bayardo's emphatic testimony that the boy had been murdered, no reasonable juror would have voted to convict Henderson of capital murder, Wisser said.
In essence, Wisser determined that prosecutors at Henderson's 1995 trial had an unfair advantage, presenting credible evidence that could not then be refuted — but could be challenged today because scientific advances have produced a deeper understanding of pediatric head injuries.
Like other recent cases of reconsidered science, biomechanics cannot prove Henderson's innocence.