SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah cancer researcher Uta von Schwedler was found dead with wounds that pointed to a homicide, but she also had a fatal level of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax in her system that made her death a mystery, a medical examiner testified Monday.
Prosecutors charged her 51-year-old ex-husband John Brickman Wall with murder after saying he killed von Schwedler during a bitter custody battle in 2011.
However, assistant medical examiner Erik Christensen stopped short of ruling her death a homicide or suicide.
"If she had no Xanax in her system I would have certified this death a homicide," Christensen testified at the murder trial of Wall.
Xanax is generally difficult to overdose on and isn't available in a liquid form that could be forcibly injected, he said.
"She just happened to take this and happened to be killed the same night? That doesn't really make sense," the medical examiner said.
Von Schwedler didn't have a history of anxiety or depression, or a prescription for Xanax. Other experts said the drug could make someone more relaxed and less likely to fight back while taking up to an hour to have an effect.
In the months after von Schwedler's death, her family called for more investigation, and the couple's oldest son fueled speculation by saying he thought his father killed his mother.
Wall was arrested and charged with murder in April 2013, nearly 19 months after her death.
Forensic pathologist Scott Denton testified that the Xanax could have been ground up finely, dissolved in liquid and injected with a needle.
He pointed to a shallow wound in von Schwedler's wrist that was surrounded by a bruise and said the wound could be covering up an injection site, though defense attorney G. Fred Metos pointed out that the wrist would be a strange place to inject a drug.
Denton said an internal injury on von Schwedler's neck could have been made by someone restraining her, and a bruise on her lip could have been made by a cup shoved against her mouth.
Wall's trial, expected to last a month, began last week. His defense attorneys say von Schwedler took the Xanax herself, and cut her own arms and legs before her death.
Under questioning by Metos, Christensen acknowledged that it's possible the cuts were self-inflicted, and that the leg is an unusual place for a defensive wound. He also said he would typically expect more wounds if she was fighting for her life.
Christensen had enough doubts about the case that he went to back to police to ask what else they had found during their investigation, but he was initially told the case was closed.
Other officers did go back and do more investigation, but the case against Wall remains largely circumstantial.