Former state medical investigator testifies

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Kimberly Novak had multiple injuries to her head and neck when she died, according to a forensic pathologist who performed her autopsy.

The 20-year-old wife of a Cannon Air Force Base airman charged with her slaying had four subdural hematomas, areas of bleeding under her scalp and internal bleeding on one side of her neck, Dr. Russell Alexander said Monday during his more than five-hour testimony.

Coupled with round, fingertip-like bruises on her chin and neck, abrasions on her face and neck, and a long, thin linear bruise on one side of her neck, Russell concluded she suffered blunt force trauma and strangulation.

“In my opinion, to an absolute degree of medical certainty, this is a homicide,” he said under direct examination by prosecutor Lt. Col. Dan Higgins.

Alexander could not say if a weapon was used to cause the head injuries and didn’t know what caused the ligature marks.

He said he does not believe the injuries were consistent with the Edward Novak’s report of finding her with her head in the toilet and a television on top of the toilet lid.
Edward Novak II is charged with first-degree murder in connection with her death and faces life in prison if convicted.

There were no broken bones in the neck, no skull fractures or obvious brain damage and no evidence of ruptured blood vessels often found in strangulation cases, he testified under cross-examination by defense attorney Maj. Jeff Palomino.

While the individual injuries she sustained were not necessarily fatal in themselves, together they painted a picture, Alexander said, giving his theory Novak received impact to her head, which rendered her unconscious, making strangulation easier for her assailant and less visible than it might have been had she struggled.

Formerly with the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, Alexander is a pathologist in Wisconsin.

Palomino also questioned why Alexander waited more than eight months to determine a cause of death, implying he was unsure and couldn’t reach an opinion on the case.

The autopsy was performed October 30, 2004. A death certificate was released mid-June 2005.

Alexander said he was waiting to see what unfolded in the investigation before reaching a determination, but he rejected defense inferences he allowed the Air Force Office of Special Investigations to influence his findings.

Highlights of Monday’s testimony at Edward Novak II’s first-degree murder trial:
• Maj. Scott Grover, formerly Edward Novak’s officer in command, testified he observed a single scratch wound on Novak’s neck and a “gouge” above his right eye the morning after Kimberly Novak died.

“It appears you must have been studying Ed Novak pretty hard,” defense attorney Maj. Shawn Vandenberg challenged on cross-examination. “About 11 months ago defense counsel talked to you at length and you didn’t mention this. Then you testified about two months ago and amazingly you didn’t mention these injuries… And that’s the first time in three years and three months that you mentioned that to anybody on the planet.”

Vandenberg’s sarcasm earned him a rebuke from Chief Trial Judge for the Air Force Dawn Eflein outside the jury’s presence.

“Maj. Vandenberg, I am familiar with your advocacy skills and I know you know where the line is,” she said, cautioning him against using sarcasm to belittle a witness in the future.

• Ryan Gholson, a former agent with the Office of Special Investigations, testified to items of evidence he collected at the Novak residence, namely a document found that informed Kimberly Novak her active-duty life insurance policy would expire in December. Kimberly Novak left active duty in August to raise her infant daughter, according to prior testimony.

Gholson was asked by defense counsel why the toilet from the scene was removed prior to being processed and was asked if he was aware the only evidence found on it was the palm print of the plumber who removed it. “I was (made) aware of that about 20 minutes ago,” Gholson said chuckling, explaining he didn’t remember collecting the toilet as evidence.

• Rodney Schenck, a latent print examiner with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, testified he analyzed several footwear impressions from the Novak yard and potential fingerprints from inside the Novak home.

Seven footwear impression castings were sent to him and he concluded six of them could have been made by a pair of tennis shoes in evidence, the seventh by a pair of hiking boots, also in evidence. Testimony as to whom the shoes and boots belonged to was not given.

Schenck also matched a thumbprint found in the top right-hand corner of the television from the bathroom to Edward Novak. A fingerprint located on the back of the television could not be identified, he said.

Fingerprints on a letter informing Kimberly Novak her active duty life insurance policy was about to expire were not matched but Edward Novak was excluded, he said.

And a palm print found on the toilet taken from the bathroom was matched to plumber Donald Taylor, who removed the toilet from the Novak residence, Schenck said.

• Donald Taylor, a Cannon maintenance contractor, testified he was asked to remove the toilet from the Novak home by the Office of Special Investigations.

The only instructions he remembered being given on the toilet removal was to keep the tank level so the contents did not spill during the removal.

“They just said ‘take it apart’… They had us take it downstairs and put it in the back of a pickup,” he said, testifying he never saw the toilet again.

Court martial fast facts
Article 39A: During a 39A, the jury is dismissed from the courtroom so the attorneys and judge can handle matters not appropriate for them to hear. The matters are discussed openly and on the record. The civilian court equivalent is a sidebar, in which attorneys approach the judge’s bench and hold on the record discussions out of earshot of the jury and court audience.

— Compiled by Sharna Johnson