MONTICELLO — A forensic pathologist asked to review the 1990 autopsy of Sheryl Houser some 14 years after her death concluded she was fatally strangled with a pair of hands.
Dr. Scott Denton, who currently practices in Bloomington, said his examination of autopsy photos showed that the 29-year-old wife and mother of three had prominent recent bruises on either side of her neck — above marks left by a nylon rope found tightly wrapped around her neck.
"The two bruises right beneath her jaw are consistent with manual strangulation," Denton said.
Prosecutors intended for Denton's testimony to bolster their mostly circumstantial evidentiary case against Mrs. Houser's estranged husband, Gregory Houser, 57, of Mansfield, charged a year ago with her Oct. 5, 1990, murder.
They believe Houser fatally strangled his wife, then tried to make it appear she hanged herself in the garage of their home in rural Piatt County. Those closest to her vehemently deny the idea that she committed suicide.
Led by Piatt County State's Attorney Dana Rhoades through 52 autopsy and scene photos, Denton gave jurors other reasons he was convinced she was manually strangled.
He estimated he's done "dozens" of autopsies where the person died that way and several involving hangings.
Denton said he was asked by an Illinois State Police investigator in 2010 or 2011 to review the then-20-year-old death of Mrs. Houser. A forensic pathologist for 22 years, including about 11 years in Cook County, Denton said he's conducted "thousands" of autopsies.
A rope wrapped around a neck three times in a hanging is highly unusual, he said.
Additionally, he said, the red marks left on Mrs. Houser by the rope were horizontal and parallel to each other and there was a prominent recent bruise on the back of her neck where a "very large complex knot" was right next to her skin.
'Death was a homicide'
Denton said that typically in hangings, ligature marks are U-shaped, "upwards and back," not horizontal and all the way around the neck. The tag of her nightgown was caught in the rope, which would be unexpected in a hanging. Perhaps most telling was the fingertip of a latex glove found in the rope.
"That is (from) someone who is involved in this," Denton said, meaning someone other than Mrs. Houser, since she was not wearing gloves.
Denton said Mrs. Houser's face was bright red and covered with petechiae, tiny little red dots indicative of blood-filled capillaries bursting when the flow of air is constricted or halted by compression of the neck. Those are not usually present in hanging victims, he said.
She had abrasions to her right ankle and right elbow, suggestive of recent scraping or rubbing.
The soles of her bare feet were clean in spite of the garage floor being "very dirty," and "she's lying in a completely atypical fashion of someone who's dead from hanging," Denton said of her position.
Mrs. Houser also had blood mixed with saliva on the shoulder of her nightgown, which appeared to come out of her mouth at a 45-degree angle. In most hangings, Denton said, fluids from the mouth dribble straight down.
"There's no evidence her death was a suicide. Her death was a homicide," he said.
Denton said the late Dr. Grant Johnson, who conducted Mrs. Houser's autopsy, concluded that she died of compression of the neck.
"He was very suspicious of homicide by strangulation," said Denton, unable to theorize why Johnson would not be more emphatic about how she died. He noted that Johnson asked for the opinion of another forensic pathologist, but there was nothing in the record to show that man reviewed the case.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Kevin Sanborn, Denton was also asked about a stain found on Mrs. Houser's nightgown that was not visible in photos taken of her at the scene but could be seen in photos taken at the morgue.
DNA expert takes stand
Forensic scientist Jennifer Aper of the Illinois State Crime Lab in Springfield, a DNA expert, identified the DNA in the stain as having come from an unidentified man. But she said the DNA did not match any of 35 men from whom comparison samples of DNA were taken in the investigation, including Houser.
Both Aper and Denton said that although it's extremely rare, it's possible that the fluid on the gown was a result of "morgue contamination" from another cadaver autopsied before Mrs. Houser or an instrument used in the morgue.
In other testimony Tuesday:
— Aper, who first worked the case in 2001, said she could not identify any DNA from the pieces of latex gloves found in the rope and at the scene.
She also found a combination of Mr. and Mrs. Houser's DNA in a used condom found in a room right off the garage.
Retired state police crime scene technician Jerry Pea said he found it on the floor of the recreation room, just inside the door leading from the garage on Oct. 5, 1990. He could not remember its condition, other than that it was not in its packaging.
It wasn't until 18 days later that now-retired forensic scientist Phillip Sallee first examined the condom, determining that it had been used. DNA analysis did not exist at the state crime lab in 1990 when Sallee first looked at the condom.
— Fingerprint expert Kevin Horath testified he found fingerprints on the pieces of latex gloves found in the rope around Mrs. Houser's neck but they were not suitable for comparison. Neither could he find any fingerprints on the metal bar in the attic opening over which the rope around Mrs. Houser was looped.
— Former Piatt County sheriff's Deputy Charles Dunlap said he was patrolling in Mansfield early on Oct. 5, 1990, the day Mrs. Houser was found dead. At 1:40 a.m., he saw Lester Shores driving very slowly on Oliver Street with a male passenger in his car whom Dunlap could not identify.
Shores had been in the Houser home on Sept. 20, the night Mrs. Houser told deputies her husband tried to strangle her with a rope and sexually assaulted her.
Houser was charged with that crime but later acquitted after his wife's death.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case today.