Medical examiner describes 5-year-old’s fractured skull as one of the worst he’s seen

Cynthia Khaleel, 31, sits in court and listens to the opening statement of her lawyer, Bevan Maxey, on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. She is on trial for second-degree murder in the death of her nephew, 5-year-old Gary Blanton III, who died in April 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The cellphone video shows all the children in Cynthia L. Khaleel’s home sitting in front of plates of food, laughing and dancing on demand. Only hours later, 5-year-old Gary Blanton III would be rushed to a hospital on April 17, 2015, with a skull so broken that doctors knew right away they couldn’t save him.

Spokane County prosecutors mostly concluded their evidence Tuesday in the second-degree murder trial of Khaleel, 31, who is charged with killing the nephew she had taken in after her brother, Gary Blanton Jr., was slain in 2012 by a killer stalking registered sex offenders in Clallam County.

Deputy Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald called as her last witness Dr. John Howard, who rotates each year as the Spokane County medical examiner. Howard said he would have determined that the boy died as a result of homicidal violence, based on the skull fractures alone.

Khaleel has consistently told investigators that she heard a thump at about 5 a.m. the day Gary suffered the injury. Khaleel said she checked on Gary, who, according to Khaleel, said he had hurt his ear when he fell while climbing on his younger brother’s crib. Three hours later, he was airlifted to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Howard said the extensive, “complex fracture” of Gary’s skull could not be explained by a 5-foot fall onto a concrete floor covered with carpet.

“I don’t believe a short fall killed Gary,” Howard said.

While Howard said he has seen skull fractures in children from falls, he has not seen the type of extensive fractures that splintered out from the back of Gary’s head and down to the base of the skull where it connects to the spine.

Howard said he has seen complex skull fractures in children who had been run over by the tire of a car, or in one case, in a child who fell from a five-story building. “Even in that case, the fracture was not as complex as this,” he said. “I believe these are inflicted injuries.”

But for all the medical evidence, investigators still only have Khaleel’s explanation of Gary’s fall for how the boy met his end.

Earlier Tuesday, Deputy Prosecutor Deric Martin called Spokane County Sheriff’s Detective Mike Drapeau to the stand. He testified about how Khaleel willingly spoke to him, allowed their 80-minute interview to be recorded and gave investigators unfettered access to her Chattaroy home to search for evidence.

Khaleel “was adamant about not leaving the hospital” where doctors had placed Gary on life support to give other physicians a chance to harvest his organs, Drapeau said.

Under questioning by defense attorney Bevan Maxey, Drapeau said a search of the home found no weapon or anything consistent with a struggle or even the exact place where Gary’s skull was crushed.

“Did you see any marks in my clients hands?” Maxey said. “I did not,” Drapeau replied.

“Would it be fair to say that you did not find any evidence of an assault in the home?” Maxey said. “That’s accurate,” Drapeau responded.

The detective later obtained search warrants for Khaleel’s phones and went through thousands of text messages between Khaleel, her husband and two men with whom she’d had relationships.

“Was there anything on this phone which conflicted with Cynthia Khaleel’s timeline of the incident?” Maxey said. Drapeau confirmed there was not.

In fact, the detective indicated he did not initially have probable cause to charge Khaleel with a crime.

The autopsy was delayed until April 21, 2015, and Drapeau was present when Howard uncovered some of the most dramatic injuries to a child’s skull that he said he had seen in 31 years as a forensic pathologist.

“I investigated it as a possible crime after that,” Drapeau said, “partially on Dr. Howard’s decision and partially on what I saw. The injuries were severe.”