Sep. 14—OTTUMWA — The first-degree murder trial related to the 2021 death of Helen Showalter continued with its second day of testimony on Thursday, shifting focus from the woman’s family and final days to her autopsy.
In the final witness of the day, prosecutors summoned Dr. Kelly Kruse, a forensic pathologist at the Iowa Medical Examiner’s Office, to the stand. She testified that Helen Showalter died of strangulation and blunt force trauma, and that the manner of death was homicide.
The testimony was presented in the trial of Gregory Showalter Sr., of Ottumwa, who faces charges of first-degree murder, abuse of a corpse, willful injury, and domestic abuse assault by impeding breathing or circulation. The most serious charge, first-degree murder, carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole if he is convicted.
Showalter’s defense attorney, Robert Breckenridge, as previewed in Wednesday’s opening statement, advanced a theory of drowning, possibly related to the presence of methamphetamine in Helen Showalter’s system at the time of her autopsy.
However, Kruse stated that her experience, training, and observations led her to a different conclusion than drowning, even with the presence of water in Helen Showalter’s stomach and sphenoid sinuses. Kruse opined to the jury that the water presence was instead related to water submersion, given that Helen Showalter’s body was found in the Des Moines River near the Cliffland Boat Ramp. She clarified that the presence of water in the stomach and sinuses, alone, did not indicate drowning.
“I examined all available evidence,” Kruse said about her decision to exclude drowning as Helen Showalter’s cause of death. “To me, her injuries were significant enough to cause her death. When you have somebody in water, your primary question is, ‘Were they alive or were they dead when they got into the water?'”
Kruse testified, and autopsy photographs depicted, bruising and abrasions to Helen Showalter’s head, mouth, and neck. Additionally, soft and fatty tissues of the neck were also impacted, further supporting her conclusion of strangulation. Her eyelids included hemorrhaging known as petechiae, which she used as additional observations to support her theory of Helen Showalter’s death, but did acknowledge strangulation isn’t the only such cause of petechiae.
The condition can be caused whenever there is irregular blood flow, including events such as a heart attack. They can also be caused by the body’s positioning post-mortem, but Kruse said in her opinion this wasn’t the case because they appeared to her to have occurred prior to Helen Showalter’s death.
During cross-examination, Breckenridge questioned Kruse’s perception that neck injuries were minor and wouldn’t have been sufficient to disrupt oxygen flow and lead to Helen Showalter’s death.
“You’re cutting off oxygen via blood supply,” Kruse clarified. “The blood supplies oxygen to your brain. So all you need to do is stop that blood supply; you don’t need to stop the air from getting to the lungs and all of that.”
Breckenridge also questioned whether other injuries sustained could have been acquired as Helen Showalter’s body floated along a low Des Moines River, but Kruse did not believe that was the case.
“Those neck injuries do not occur with someone floating in the water,” Kruse said.
Breckenrige’s Wednesday opening statement teased another forensic pathologist he plans to call later in the trial that will refute Kruse’s determination.
Before the pathologist’s testimony, the jury heard lengthy testimony from two more family members to start the day. The first was Helen Showalter’s granddaughter, whom Helen Showalter raised, and the other was Jeremy Showalter, the granddaughter’s father and son of Helen and Gregory Showalter.
They corroborated details regarding life within the Showalter family, and the days and months leading to her disappearance and death.
An argument that took place a couple of weeks before Helen Showalter went missing on July 31, 2021, led family members to place both the 15-year-old granddaughter and Helen Showalter in an Ottumwa hotel.
The argument over a cellphone charger between the granddaughter and Showalter became heated and physical, involving much cursing and yelling, as the testimony showed. Family members present testified that at one point, Showalter swung an open hand toward the granddaughter, making contact with her forehead.
The granddaughter testified that the swing didn’t hurt, but family members stepped between them, with Showalter being restrained by his son Christian Showalter, as the family testified.
Later, on July 29, 2021, Helen Showalter sent divorce papers to Showalter while she was staying at her mother’s home.
Testimony is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. on Friday at the Wapello County Courthouse.
Kyle Ocker is the editor of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.
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