Judge hears case for new trial for Orange man convicted in 2011

  • Elizabeth Laposata, president of the independent consulting firm Forensic Pathology & Legal Medicine, testifies via Zoom in Franklin County Superior Court. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Defense attorney Paul Rudof asks expert witness Elizabeth Laposata, a forensic pathologist, questions with Zoom in Franklin County Superior Court on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


  • Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne asks expert witness Elizabeth Laposata, a forensic pathologist, questions via Zoom in Franklin County Superior Court on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2022 3:00:50 PM
Modified: 9/27/2022 2:59:58 PM

GREENFIELD — The Franklin County Superior Court judge who in 2011 sentenced an Orange man to eight to 12 years in prison for manslaughter, motor vehicle homicide and drunken driving was on the bench Monday for a motion hearing as the convicted man’s attorneys sought to get their client a new trial.

John Agostini presided over a roughly 3½-hour hearing 11 years after sending Daniel Tompkins to prison for causing the crash that killed Heather Buffum, 21, and Melissa Duff, 25, four years earlier, in June 2007. Tompkins had testified at his bench trial that he was not driving at the time of the crash but rather Jeffrey Blake was, a claim Agostini called “ludicrous” in the 2011 trial.

Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne, who prosecuted Tompkins in 2011 and is representing the state during this motion hearing, said Tompkins, now 45, has served roughly 10 years of his sentence. However, if granted a new trial and found not guilty, Tompkins would have his conviction overturned.

Monday’s hearing was recessed and will resume when the attorneys inform the court of their witnesses’ availability.

Paul Rudof and Ines McGillion, Tompkins’ court-appointed attorneys, called to the witness stand Elizabeth Laposata, president of the independent consulting firm Forensic Pathology & Legal Medicine, in Rhode Island. Laposata testified via Zoom and said her analysis of the case and the vehicle occupants’ medical records support Tompkins’ claim that Blake was driving at the time of the crash that Agostini called the most horrendous he had ever seen at the time.

Gagne spent his cross-examination grilling Laposata and trying to pick apart any apparent discrepancies between her written report and her testimony Monday.

Laposata explained that pathology is the study of diseases and injuries of the body. She said she has performed approximately 4,500 autopsies and reviewed about 700 performed by other physicians. She also mentioned she aids police investigations by determining the cause of death and injuries involved in collisions and other accidents.

She testified that she has reviewed hundreds of photographs of the crash scene and gained significant knowledge of how the red 2001 Ford Expedition was traveling on the morning of June 20, 2007, when it struck a steel guardrail on South Street in Bernardston, somersaulting the vehicle and rolling it 150 feet off the road.

Loposata told Rudof that Blake was the only occupant not ejected from the vehicle. None of the occupants were wearing seat belts and the vehicle’s airbags did not deploy. Loposata said a driver is less likely to be ejected during a rollover because of the steering wheel and because the person’s body will always move toward the point of impact.

She said Blake’s injuries were not consistent with being ejected from a vehicle, but rather from being inside a driver’s compartment. She also said Tompkins’ injuries — including a fractured skull and scapula — were much more severe than Blake’s.

The witness also spoke about blood spatter. She said the blood in various places inside the vehicle could not have been left by Blake where they were found if Blake had been in the back seat.

During cross-examination, Gagne called into question Loposata’s knowledge of physics, engineering, automotive safety and vehicle occupant kinematics — the mechanics of occupant motion inside a vehicle — and other fields of expertise required to analyze a vehicle crash.

Gagne cited a document from April 2019 in which Loposata said she had performed between 6,000 and 7,000 autopsies, even though she had testified shortly before Gagne’s questioning that she has performed roughly 4,500. Loposata responded that the cause of the discrepancy is likely the number of autopsies she oversaw or supervised as the chief medical officer in Rhode Island. Gagne also had her confirm she is not a crash scene reconstruction specialist.

Gagne also asked Loposata who she employs at Forensic Pathology & Legal Medicine. Loposata said she has one part-time assistant “for secretarial purposes,” prompting Gagne to ask who checks her work for accuracy and thoroughness.

“Nobody checks my work,” Loposata replied.

She said she does not know how fast the Ford Expedition was going when it struck the guardrail but she knows the vehicle was traveling 87 or 88 mph before it made impact. She testified that evidence suggests Duff was likely the first occupant ejected and was “crushed several times by the vehicle.”

She said Tompkins had classic “dashboard injuries” — caused by one’s legs violently striking a dashboard — and splinters from wooden railroad ties at the crash site.

During Tompkins’ 2011 trial, Blake testified that the four occupants had been drinking at several bars in Greenfield before buying more beer and driving to the boat ramp in Northfield. He said the group then went to Winchester, New Hampshire, before the fatal accident to buy more beer.

Blake claimed Tompkins was drinking during the entire trip. But Tompkins claimed he handed the keys to Blake before leaving the boat ramp and that it was Blake who was driving at the time of the crash.

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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