Prince George's County prosecutors said yesterday they will drop a two-month-old murder charge against Victoria Gertson, 14, who was accused of killing her mother, saying that Maria Gertson, 48, died of natural causes.
The decision by chief prosecutor Arthur A. Marshall Jr. followed weeks of contradictory statements by the county police and state medical examiners as to when law enforcement officers learned of the brain abscess that the medical examiner said eventually killed Maria Gertson, and why charges were not dropped earlier.
Marshall's printed announcement yesterday--which said that police had properly arrested and charged Victoria Gertson--did not clear up the confusion. But police, prosecutors and medical examiners would not comment further on what happened.
It is not unusual to charge someone with murder even though an autopsy has not been completed, according to Cpl. Ron Smith of the Prince George's County police.
"We don't look for proof--we look for probable cause," Smith said yesterday. "The medical examiner's office initially informed us it was murder and they changed their minds. Mistakes happen, but in this case the police department didn't make the mistake."
Later yesterday, a relieved Victoria Gertson told reporters that she did not have an argument with her mother at their home in Langley Park on May 21, as police allege, and that she did not slam her mother's head into a nightstand. The slightly built girl said that when she was questioned by police after she turned herself in 10 days after the incident, one detective told her she had struck her mother. She said she agreed, "because I was drowsy."
"I never thought I was responsible for her death," Gertson said. When asked how she felt about her mother's death, she said, "She's probably better off where she is now because the world is so crazy."
Marshall's statement said the autopsy indicated, "There is no medical evidence that a causal connection exists between Victoria Gertson striking her mother's head on a nightstand and her death."
According to the statement, police suspicions about a possible murder were raised on May 24 when a Montgomery County deputy medical examiner who first examined Maria Gertson said he believed there was evidence of external trauma to her head. The body was then sent to the state medical examiner in Baltimore.
Prince George's County police said last month that assistant state examiner Dr. Dennis Smyth told them at the time of the May 25 autopsy that the death appeared to be a homicide. Smyth later denied saying that.
Police arrested Gertson May 31, and held her in the county detention center for two nights without bond before releasing her to a friend on $30,000 bond June 2.
The final autopsy report by Smyth was dated July 20. It arrived at Gertson's lawyer's office two days later.
Yesterday's announcement followed a meeting Thursday of prosecutors, homicide detectives and medical examiners to discuss "facts surrounding the death of Maria Gertson and improving communications between the respective offices," according to the release.
Gertson's attorney, Joseph DePaul, yesterday criticized both the prosecutors and state medical examiners for what he called unreasonable delays in conducting the autopsy and dropping the charges. He called the state's attorney's office "less than speedy" and "a classic example of bureaucratic insensitivity."
" Victoria was put through hellish torture," he said.
DePaul said he has tried unsuccessfully to reach state's attorney Marshall. Neither Marshall nor his assistant would return telephone calls to The Washington Post.
Earlier reports said that the medical examiner's office received a brain study from Dr. Juan Troncoso of Johns Hopkins Hospital on May 27, four days before Victoria Gertson was charged, which concluded that the mother had died of natural causes. The state's attorney's press release, however, said that the date May 27 was a typographical error on the report and that the Troncoso report actually arrived at the examiner's office shortly before July 20.