By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO April 4, 2003 Murder defendant Hal Karen sat stone-faced in the courtroom Wednesday during the eighth day of his trial for allegedly murdering his 41-year-old wife Tammy Lynn Karen and dumping her body in the woods near their former house.
On June 27, 1999 Karen told authorities his wife left him and their Bloomingburg home, and New York State Police investigators started a nationwide search for the missing spouse.
But on March 25, 2002, a couple riding an ATV near Wurtsboro discovered what forensic specialists later identified as the skeletal remains of Tammy Lynn Karen in a garbage can wrapped up in plastic trash bags, later prompting the case to be dubbed the Garbage Can Murder.
In the wake of what Sullivan County District Attorney called painstaking police work, Karen was arrested and charged by a grand jury with four counts, including second-degree murder.
After his arrest, Karen, 43, reportedly changed his story, telling authorities that his wife had died in their bathroom, and panicking for fear of losing their son, he stuffed her body into a trash can and dumped it in the woods near Route 17s path through the Shawangunk Ridge.
The murder trial opened in Sullivan County Court before Judge Frank LaBuda on Monday, March 24. It is expected to last approximately two weeks.
Throughout the trial, Karen, a former member of the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, has sat virtually emotionless, even when graphic photographic evidence of his wifes remains were projected on a screen for the jury.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, the trial resembled a case of dueling doctors, as both the prosecution and defense called recognized medical experts in the field of pathology to the stand to bolster their respective positions: the prosecuting district attorney held that Karen murdered his wife, while Karens defense attorney Henri Shawn maintained that Tammy Karen died of a cocaine overdose, and thus his client was innocent of murder.
On Wednesday, Dr. Michael M. Baden, director of the NYS Police medicolegal investigations unit, testified for the state, while Dr. James Gill testified for the defense.
Dr. Baden is the former head of the NYC Medicals Examiner Office. He served as a member of a Senate select committee charged with evaluating the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dr. Gill serves as deputy chief medical examiner of the Bronx County branch of the NYC Medical Examiners Office. He is a board certified pathologist and was educated at MIT.
Dr. Baden said that, in his opinion, the method in which Tammy Karen bodys had been dumped over the embankment off Old Route 17 pointed toward homicide.
On Wednesday, he reiterated earlier statements to the effect that the cause of her death was consistent with either strangulation or suffocation.
In my opinion, death by drug overdose was eliminated by the toxicological findings, he added. It is a case of homicidal asphyxiation.
As part of the autopsy process, Tammy Karens remains were examined by the state police forensics lab in Albany. An initial exam report was issued on September 13, 2002, followed by specific forensic testing in November. Tammy Karen was put to rest by her family in January.
Low levels of a metabolized cocaine byproduct found in the scant remains of her liver indicated occasional drug use but not chronic abuse or an overdose, said Dr. Baden.
The body was placed in the garbage pail and trussed up in such a way as the body wouldnt be found, or if found, the body would be so deteriorated the cause of death could not be determined. . . . He tried to get rid of the body so nobody would find it, said Dr. Baden. Drug deaths can often be mistaken for homicides.
In 1972, Dr. Baden published papers on his theories about what he labeled drug dumps, usually involving the disposal of victims of violence stemming from drug deals gone bad.
On cross and re-cross examination, Shawn asked Baden if his theories could in fact prove that Tammy Karen died as the result of a drug overdose and was not the victim of foul play.
Baden agreed that sometimes people who die of overdoses get dumped but stuck to his view that Tammy Karen was murdered.
Dr. Gill testified for the defense as a medical expert. He explained to the jury that the role of a medical pathologist is to determine Who are you? and determine How did this person die? along with documenting the evidentiary process.
He speculated that tests on a liver that has been in the woods for several seasons . . . proves to me that she used cocaine shortly before her death.
There are many ways that cocaine can cause death, including sudden death, he said. Boom, lights out, and theyre dead.
In a lighter moment, a ripple of laughter coursed through the courtroom when a juror leaned back in his chair and it collapsed beneath him.
Theyre nearly 80 years old, said Judge LaBuda, defusing the momentary surge of consternation.
In off-camera remarks during a break in testimony on Wednesday, Shawn said the trial was like playing chess. . . . Its a very interesting case.
We threw a few good counterpunches today, he added.
The trial is expected to continue today.