Utah medical examiner: Young victim suffered lethal heart tear
The child's suffering likely didn't last more than an hour.
But in that time, Utah's chief medical examiner testified Monday, Hser Ner Moo suffered more than a dozen "excruciating" injuries, including a fatal tear to the girl's heart.
On the fifth day of testimony, Todd Grey was called as a witness in the trial of Esar Met, a Burmese refugee accused of kidnapping, assaulting and killing the 7-year-old girl in 2008
He walked an 11-person jury through each wound: bruises to the child's face, back and chest, internal bleeding from her skull and her heart, her lungs, kidney and pancreas were scraped and bruised, her left arm broken in two places.
In an autopsy performed on April 2, 2008 the day after Hser Ner Moo was found dead in a South Salt Lake basement apartment Grey ruled that the sum of these injuries caused the child's death.
The wound to the girl's heart, a tear in its right atrium, was the most lethal.
"This would have been excruciating pain," Grey said. "This was a homicide, a death due to an intentional action by another person."
The child's face was bruised a deep purple, with a scratch on her left temple just above her eye. The girl's left forearm, which was broken in two places, was unnaturally bent at a near-right angle. Scratches and marks lined her chest, her back and her neck.
It was not clear how the child suffered such severe injuries, Grey said, but several were likely caused by a blunt object hitting or being pressed against her body. Marks around Hser Ner Moo's neck suggested asphyxia, and Grey said it was possible that she was strangled.
Met, 27, calmly sat through the graphic testimony Monday morning, showing little response to images of the child's battered corpse.
Met is charged in 3rd District Court with first-degree felony child kidnapping and aggravated murder. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Prosecutors decided to forgo seeking the death penalty against Met last year to speed up the proceedings in the nearly 6-year-old case.
Though severe, Grey said, Hser Ner Moo's external wounds did not compare to those she suffered internally.
Her lungs were bruised apparently from being scraped against her spine and her pancreas, kidney and heart were also damaged.
Grey could not say how the injury to her heart occurred, though it's possible pressure to her breastplate caused the organ to rupture.
Once that happened, causing blood to leak out of the heart and into the chest cavity, Grey said, she would have been dead in a matter of moments.
During cross-examination by the defense, Grey said he couldn't be sure what time the girl died.
It was likely a minimum of 12 hours before she was found, which was at about 7 p.m. on April 1, 2008, Grey testified, but it could have been as much as a day and a half before.
According to testimony by Sgt. Troy McCombe, the case manager, Met would have had to kill Hser Ner Moo in an hour window between the time she vanished and the time he boarded a bus to his aunt and uncle's home in Cottonwood Heights.
Met, who bumped into his uncle on a bus the afternoon of March 31, 2008, would have had to leave the South Parc apartment complex where he lived no later than 2:39 p.m. to catch that bus, McCombe testified.
Hser Ner Moo was last seen by her family sometime between 1:30 and 2 p.m. that day.
Hser Ner Moo's disappearance on that day prompted hundreds of volunteers to scour the largely refugee South Salt Lake community before law enforcement found her body in Met's basement apartment the next night.
She was bloodied and lifeless, stuffed into a bathtub still wet with water.
Met, who listened to the testimony through a Burmese interpreter, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
During testimony last week, child abuse expert Lori Frasier told the jury that Hser Ner Moo suffered a painful death.
Grey echoed this on Monday as he told the jury that the girl's injuries would have been "excruciating."
Frasier, who was called on to assist in evaluating Hser Ner Moo's injuries after the autopsy had been performed, focused her testimony heavily on damage to the child's genitals, which she said were extremely rare and likely caused by forceful penetration.
No DNA evidence suggesting a sexual assault was found at the time of the girl's death and Met has not been charged with such a crime, but Frasier testified that doesn't mean one didn't take place.
"It may have been a crime of power rather than a crime of sex," Frasier testified. "There are a number of reasons for DNA not to be present."
The child's family, who tearfully testified last week, said they last saw her on March 31, 2008, playing happily with her brother. She told her aunt, who was babysitting the children, that she was going to play, but didn't say where or with whom.
That's when she disappeared.
Defense attorneys have maintained their client did not harm the little girl. On Friday, Hser Ner Moo's childhood best friend testified that Met played with the girls often and loved them like "little sisters."
Met's lawyers have dismissed the DNA evidence found on their client's denim jacket and under the girl's fingernails as resulting from games the two played prior to her death.
The defendant's aunt, Mi Cho, testified Monday that her nephew had always had a penchant for playing with children. He did so in Burma when he was a boy, in Thailand at the refugee camps and then when he came to the United States, just one month before the murder.
The day he was arrested at her home, Mi Cho said, he had spent the previous several hours entertaining her own young children.
When Met received a phone call from a friend in South Parc, asking if he had seen the missing girl, he told him, "She did not come along with me. I don't know," the aunt testified.
Defense attorneys have maintained that Met is an innocent man whose four roommates may have been responsible for the girl's disappearance and death.
His lawyers have pointed to the other men's seemingly indifferent behavior after the child's parents came to their door searching for the missing girl and a rift between the defendant and his roommates over ethnic differences.
The roommates were arrested on April 1, 2008, but later released.
All four are expected to take the stand Tuesday.
The jury trial is scheduled to continue through Jan. 24.
A Missing Peace
Reporter Julia Lyon traveled to Thailand to trace the journeys of Hser Ner Moo and Esar Met from the Mae La refugee camp to Salt Lake City. Her series, reported in collaboration with the International Reporting Project, also explored the challenges their families and other refugees face in America. See the series at http://extras.sltrib.com/thailand.