Seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was found dead in an apartment in Langley in July of 2018. (Special to the Langley Advance Times)

Cause of death at issue in Langley child murder trial

A Crown expert witness said it is possible that Aaliyah drowned

WARNING: This story contains disturbing content

The cause of death of seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was at the centre of testimony this week as the trial of Langley’s KerryAnn Lewis continued in New Westminster Supreme Court, with a medical expert saying drowning and toxic drugs may be the most likely cause of death.

Dr. Marc Del Bigio is expected to be the final witness in Lewis’s first degree murder trial. She’s accused of killing her daughter, Aaliyah, on July 22, 2018, in her Willoughby apartment.

The final phase of the trial has centered on expert medical testimony about whether or not a pre-existing medical condition could have contributed to, or caused, Aaliyah’s death.

Del Bigio, a neuropathologist and professor at the University of Manitoba, was called by the Crown prosecutors to rebut testimony of defense witness Dr. Christopher Dunham, a pediatric neuropathologist at B.C. Children’s Hospital.

Dunham testified earlier that his examination showed that Aaliyah suffered from undiagnosed hydrocephalus – a condition that includes swelling of the brain. While it didn’t seem to have affected Aaliyah seriously while she was alive, Dunham told the court that the condition was a likely contributor to her death.

“Blunt force trauma is definitely playing a role in this case,” Dunham testified earlier. “The pre-existing condition is definitely playing a role in this case.”

Del Bigio said his examination showed less evidence for either head trauma or hydrocephalus as major contributors to death.

“There’s definitely evidence for mild trauma to the head, but aside from it being recent, one can’t be sure whether it happened prior to her dying, or after her death,” Del Bigio said.

Questioned by Crown lawyer Kristen LeNoble, Del Bigio said that submersion in water, lack of oxygen, and drug toxicity, in some combination, remained a plausible cause of death.

“I think that the cause of death could still be related to non-neuropathological factors, as described in the original autopsy report,” Del Bigio said.

He emphasized that examining the brain alone would not determine if death was caused by drowning.

“There’s nothing in the brain that will show anything specific to drowning,” he said.

The Crown’s case since the start of the trial has been that Lewis, distraught over her limited access to her daughter, gave the young girl a mixture of over-the-counter and prescription medications before drowning her in a bathtub.

Witnesses who discovered the child’s body said she was wet and was wearing a bathrobe, on the bathroom floor.

READ MORE: Crown wrangles with witness over cause of death in Langley child murder case

Lewis’s lawyer, Marilyn Sandford, began cross-examining Del Bigio on Tuesday morning, and focused on the gaps in the information he and other experts had available after the initial autopsy.

Del Bigio had access to previous autopsy reports, some photos, and samples taken during the autopsy. But many of the parts of the brain were not well labelled, he said.

“I can’t tell for example if five of the samples were taken from right beside each other,” Del Bigio said. “Things like that would be important to know. If you’re looking for changes in a certain part of the brain, I need to know what part of the brain it is.”

Sandford also asked Del Bigio a number of technical questions about specific brain structures, changes that might be seen in them after death, and about proper procedures for preserving brain tissue after an autopsy, and even what happens to such autopsy evidence after experts have finished their work.

The trial was set to continue with Del Bigio’s testimony wrapping up Wednesday morning. After that, the lawyers are likely to give their final arguments before Justice Martha Devlin.


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