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Douglas County halts prosecution of murder case that defense attorney says used 'junk science'

A screenshot of a Kansas Supreme Court hearing
Screenshot
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Arguments before the Kansas Supreme Court in Buchhorn v. State of Kansas.

Dr. Erik Mitchell has been a coroner in Douglas County and has testified in cases across Kansas. Critics say he sometimes gets it wrong.

TOPEKA, Kansas — The Douglas County district attorney will not retry a Eudora woman for murder after questionable conclusions from a medical examiner led to concern that she was improperly convicted.

Carrody Buchhorn, a day care worker, was convicted in 2018 for killing 9-month-old Ollie Ortiz while in Buchhorn’s care. The case hinged on testimony from medical examiner Dr. Erik Mitchell. He said Buchhorn had stomped on the baby's head. But lawyers for Buchhorn say Mitchell’s theory is based on junk science because the baby had no signs of brain trauma.

They contend, and independent reports say, the baby died of natural causes and Buchhorn tried to give CPR.

This case went to trial and a jury convicted Buchhorn of reckless second-degree murder before Douglas County DA Suzanne Valdez won election to office. Buchhorn appealed and her conviction was later overturned.

The Douglas County DA requested time to bring in an independent expert to review the case to see if it was worth pursuing again. That report found conflicting information, which convinced the DA’s office to back off of prosecution.

“While there are conflicting findings between the state’s two retained experts, as well as other evidence to support prosecution, we do not believe the evidence is likely to meet our burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Valdez said in a news release.

Mitchell has spent a decade testifying in just under a dozen Kansas counties, and his testimony has helped lead to murder convictions. But news articles, defendants and others have argued he doesn't always get it right. In the Ortiz case, the state argued that Buchhorn had her day in court and the jury found Mitchell’s theory more believable. But other cases Mitchell worked on have been overturned.

In 2021, the Kansas City Star reported that one of Mitchell’s autopsies misidentified an injury, which was an important piece of evidence used to wrongly convict someone of murder. That person has since been freed.

In 1993, Mitchell agreed to resign as the Onondaga County, New York, medical examiner because he removed organs without consent and improperly stored skeletons, the New York Times reported then.

Valdez said the DA’s office sought out an independent medical expert because of Mitchell’s checkered past. While Mitchell is able to testify in cases, Valdez said her office has never asked him to do so.

“I chose not to use Dr. Mitchell as a witness of any sort due to his questionable professional reputation,” Valdez said. “If there is any consolation to be had by those who mourn the loss of Ollie, it can be found in the fact that many trained professionals worked tirelessly to pursue justice, and Ollie will never be forgotten.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As a criminal justice and social service reporter, it's my job to ensure the systems designed to help people are working as intended. Thousands of Kansans deal with the criminal justice or foster care systems each day. I strive to hold all agencies and departments accountable for the work they are doing. blaise@kcur.org.