By Latoya Hunter - CourtTV.com
December 1, 1999
CLEVELAND (Court TV) — John and
Sarah Pudelski lost their infant daughter — a time to grieve for most
parents. However, little Elly's death brought more that grief to John
Pudelski's life. The 30-year-old engineer was convicted of murder and
received a 15-year to life sentence.
Elly Marie Pudelski's death was first described as
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the medical term used for unexplained
infant deaths. After a coroner noticed a linear fracture on the right
side of the baby's skull, the death was classified as a homicide — a
killing John Pudelski's was soon suspected of committing. He was charged
with premeditated murder and/or felony murder.
When police questioned the couple, John denied
hurting the baby. He claimed there was no way Elly had a skull fracture.
Though he denied involvement, he admitted he was the last one to see the
baby alive. Pudelski was placed under arrest. His wife agreed that he
was the murderer and filed for divorce days later.
The defense claimed the injury to to Elly's head was
caused by difficult childbirth. Sarah's labor was induced because of
high blood pressure and a Cesarean section was performed 30 hours later.
Experts testifying for the defense will support this theory.
However, prosecutors said, after Elly's birth, a
doctor evaluated the baby and concluded that she was fine. In addition,
Sarah Pudelski claims the child was in good health.
The night before Elly's death, John Pudelski
volunteered to feed her around 12 a.m — the first time, according to his
wife, that he fed Elly since she arrived from the hospital. Sarah
claimed she was surprised by the gesture and went to sleep. At around 7
a.m., she claims she woke up and immediately felt something was wrong
when she realized Elly didn't wake up for a 4 o'clock feeding. John,
however, was sound asleep. Sarah claims this was also strange because he
was usually up for work by that time.
Sarah's instincts were right. Something was wrong.
Mrs. Pudelski claimed Elly was pushed up against one side of her crib's
headboard and was cold to the touch. She woke her husband and he called
911. John attempted CPR on the baby but Sarah claims he tried to hide
the baby during the procedure. Also, according to a paramedic who
arrived on the scene, John Pudelski behaved strangely when asked about
Sarah Pudelski claimed her ex-husband is cold and
cash-obsessed. She claims he never revealed to her how much he made as a
computer engineer and gave her a $10 a week allowance. According to
Sarah, John didn't allow his daughters from another marriage to go
outside and play with other children.
Despite Sarah's claims, John Pudelski's co-workers at
Highland Software Inc. continue to stand by the belief that he is a good
man and did not commit any crime.
John Pudelski's attorney said he would appeal the
On March 16, 1999, her attending obstetrician, Dr. Daniel Aronson,
admitted Sarah Pudelski, 37 weeks pregnant, to Hillcrest Hospital. Dr.
Aronson diagnosed pregnancy-induced hypertension and noted Sarah's
worsening condition. After 34 hours, Dr. Aronson determined that
delivery by cesarean section was necessary. Because of complicating
factors, Dr. William Zaia, a neonatologist, was also present in the
delivery room. Elly was not breathing for the first minute of her life.
Elly needed to be "kicked started" through the use of an oxygen bag and
a mask, and vigorous stimulation.
Elly remained at the hospital until March 20, 1999
and was examined and observed by a variety of medical personnel whose
reported findings were not totally consistent.
At approximately 7:00 am on March 29, 1999, Sarah
alerted John that Elly appeared unresponsive and cold. John called 911
and attempted resuscitation. EMS transported Elly to Meridia Euclid
Hospital where Dr. Kerry Scott found no signs of life. Dr. Scott
pronounced Elly dead. Dr. Scott completed a form relating to Elly's
death indicating no noticeable injuries, concluding sudden infant death
syndrome (SIDS) as probably cause of death.
Dr. Joseph Felo, a Cuyahoga County deputy coroner for
approximately nine months, began Elly's autopsy on March 30, 1999. Dr.
Felo did not review nor did he have knowledge of Sarah's complicated and
prolonged labor, accepting as true (incorrect) statements from Euclid
Police relating a normal birth. Dr. Felo did not review any medical
records prior to performing his autopsy.
X-rays revealed a linear, four inch skull fracture
with no gross intricranial injuries, on the side of Elly's head without
signs of healing. Dr. Felo estimated the death occurred three to four
hours following the "injury."
Dr. Felo claimed that Elly died close to 3:00 am. Dr.
Felo ruled out SIDS as the cause of death and concluded on April 2,
1999, that Elly died as a result of cerebral edema due to a single blunt
impact to the head with a skull fracture and the scalp hemorrhage. The
coroner's office conducted no independent investigation nor did it
interview Sarah or John.
At police request, Sarah and John went to Euclid
Police Station. Upon entering the police station the Pudelskis were
separated, Sarah going with Sergeant Pestak and John going with Jorz and
Lt. Brooks. When Jorz confronted John with this unexpected distressing
information, John explained the circumstances of Elly's birth and the
prolonged labor before it. He was told this was a more recent fracture
and when John can offer no explanation for a recent fracture, Jorz read
John Miranda warnings, providing him with a corresponding form to sign.
Upon reviewing this form, John requested to speak with a lawyer at which
moment John was no longer free to leave. Jorz concluded Elly had been
murdered and Jorz arrested John for this crime. John was arraigned on
April 1, 1999 even before Dr. Felo reached his conclusions.
John's defense consisted of evidence from three
prominent medical experts and character testimony. One of these, Dr.
Robert Kiwi, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospitals
of Cleveland, concluded that [Elly's skull] fracture was more likely
than not, to have occurred at the time of birth rather than as an acute
injury at or near the time of death, because he did not see any evidence
that this was an acute injury.
Dr. Jan Leesma, Board certified in anatomic pathology
and neuropathology, testified that Elly did not die as a result of blunt
force trauma leading to cerebral edema, but with the trauma of birthing
process causing the skull fracture.
Dr. Michael Baden, Board certified in anatomic
pathology, clinical pathology, and forensic pathology, found Elly's
brain normal at autopsy (and during life) and that she did not die of
any brain abnormality, nor was her death a homicide.
John's remaining evidence consisted of character
witnesses including his employer, his former wife, his former mother-in-law,
and his mother. Following the submission of the defense exhibits, John
rested and renewed his motion for Judgment of Acquittal, which the trial
court overruled. The State presented rebuttal evidence challenging the
medical testimony of Drs. Kiwi, Leesma, and Badin. The jury returned its
verdict acquitting John of aggravated murder, finding John guilty of
murder. John filed a motion for Post-Verdict Judgment of Acquittal on in
the alternative for a New Trial, which the court denied. The court
sentenced John to a term of imprisonment of fifteen years to life.
John filed a second motion for New Trial based on
Newly Discovered Evidence, photographs taken the day after Elly's birth.
These revealing pictures exhibited a large bruise on Elly's head, a
bruise overlooked by all of the state's witnesses who testified that
such a bruise did not exist.
The court concluded a two-day hearing wherein
additional medical experts testified and a computer generated digital
recreation confirmed the fracture's location underneath the bruised area
as reflected in the newly discovered pictures, further supporting the
defense evidence that the fracture was caused at birth. The trial court
overruled John's motion for new trial. John timely appealed the Judgment
of Conviction and the denials of his motion for new trial.
At no time did the state produce evidence, let alone
beyond a reasonable doubt, that Elly's death resulted from or through
criminal agency, that John inflicted injury or caused the injury, all of
which are necessary to sustain conviction.