Crash-test dummy used by defense to simulate toddler's death

TAMPA — The star defense witness in the murder trial Monday was 3 feet tall, wore a pink shirt and blue pants, and had a cute button nose and a head full of electronic sensors.

She was a toddler crash-test dummy unsentimentally named Hybrid III. A jury saw her dropped on her head 12 times on behalf of Eric James Tate, charged with first-degree murder in the death of a 2-year-old child he babysat in 2006.

All last week, a Hillsborough jury heard testimony from medical doctors that Heather Romance, the toddler Tate was babysitting, most likely died from a deliberate blow to her head.

The blow was so severe, the doctors testified, that it caused Heather's brain and retinas to bleed. Two doctors from St. Joseph's Hospital said that in 30 years they had never seen such injuries occur in minor, accidental falls.

But when Tate's side took over Monday, his attorney, Brian Gonzalez, introduced a crash-test dummy defense to bolster Tate's claim that Heather died after toppling off a couch and hitting her head on the floor.

The demonstration Monday was put together by Chris Van Ee, a biomechanical engineer from Detroit, who normally uses crash-test dummies to test seat belts and air bags.

For the Tate defense, he staged a video in a make-believe living room with a love seat the same height as the sofa in Heather's Lutz home and a small, carpeted wooden floor.

Van Ee then pretended to playfully bounce Hybrid III on the love seat before dropping her on her head.

He did that 12 times. In half the falls, Hybrid III's sensors registered sufficient G-forces to cause serious brain injury.

Van Ee conceded that in real life, children rarely die from falls from couches.

"But even if it's one in a million, that would still be 20 to 30 deaths a year," he said.

To back up his tests, Van Ee also played a video of a real-life accidental death. It was recorded by the grandmother of an unnamed 2-year-old as the girl fell off a small play set and died from a brain injury.

"Children do suffer fatal injuries from short falls," he said.

The defense rested after Tate declined to testify in his own behalf.

His trial before Circuit Judge William Fuente is substantially different from originally advertised by prosecutors. A charge of rape was dropped. So was the possibility of a death sentence.

Back in 2006, a medical examiner's document referred to reports from St. Joseph's Hospital of "vaginal bleeding with recent genital trauma." A report by a Sheriff's Office child protection officer also noted "extensive" bruises and lacerations of the child's genitals.

There was no testimony on any of that.

The jury will begin deliberations after closing statements today by the defense and prosecution.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Crash-test dummy used by defense to simulate toddler's death 06/06/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 6, 2011 11:15pm]

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