PERRYVILLE -- The Cecil County sheriff's deputy wh responded to an emergency call at a Perryville mobile home early last Aug. 18 found Shirley Melvin sprawled unconscious on the floor, a trace of blood on her lips.
Her husband, Kenneth Dean Melvin, told the deputy that in the heat of an argument he had smacked his wife in the face with the back of his hand, although red marks also were visible on her neck.
Mrs. Melvin arrived at the hospital in a coma and was diagnosed as brain dead as a result of the rupture of a weakened blood vessel in her brain. Her father, Homer L. Cook Jr., flew up from Florida the next day and made the decision to remove life-support systems and let his daughter die, just two days after her 34th birthday.
Was her death a medical tragedy that could have happened at any time, or a case of murder?
Mrs. Melvin's death certificate lists the cause as homicide. But when her husband goes on trial in Cecil County Circuit Court -- his case is scheduled for Tuesday -- he will face only a single count of assault and battery.
The victim's family is outraged that Mr. Melvin isn't facing murdercharges. It has criticized Cecil County State's Attorney John L. Scarborough for not pursuing the case more aggressively.
"If he hadn't hit her, she'd be alive today," said Susan Crossan, the victim's sister, who also lives in Perryville. "I'm bound and determined that I'm not going to let this drop."
However, Mr. Scarborough said it was the grand jury's decision to return only an assault and battery indictment, apparently because of concern about proving that the altercation between the couple caused the blood vessel to rupture.
"All we did was present the evidence," said Mr. Scarborough, who will not be personally prosecuting the case. "We weren't leaning one way or the other. The grand jury didn't feel there was sufficient evidence to return any other indictments."
The autopsy on Mrs. Melvin notes that "the association between this woman's death and a history of physical altercation suggests a causal relationship between the assault and her death. Thus, the manner of death is homicide."
Dr. Ann M. Dixon, an assistant state medical examiner, said this does not necessarily mean a murder charge should be filed. She pointed out that the autopsy report also notes that Mrs. Melvin's dilated blood vessel, known as an aneurysm, was a congenital defect and could have ruptured at any time, even in her sleep.
Proving in court that the assault caused it to rupture could be difficult, Dr. Dixon said, particularly since the autopsy showed "there wasn't any evidence of any significant physical violence."
But Mrs. Melvin's family points to a report from Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, where she was treated, suggesting that she and her husband had a more violent quarrel.
Dr. Marian Benner, Mrs. Melvin's attending physician, noted there were red marks 3 to 4 inches long on her neck, and a report on an X-ray taken hours after her death states that "this patient, by history, was strangled."
Dr. John E. Smialek, the state medical examiner, said that the autopsy also found round red marks on Mrs. Melvin's neck, but his office concluded that the injuries were not severe enough to amount to strangulation.
The hospital's reports were not shown to the grand jury because they were not yet available, said Assistant State's Attorney David H. Parrack, who is prosecuting the Melvin case.
"We relied on the state medical examiner's office," he said. "The grand jury had access to the autopsy report."
It is not uncommon for reports from hospitals and the medical examiner to conflict, but the autopsy is nearly always given credence, according to several prosecutors from other jurisdictions who would discuss the Melvin case only if they were not identified.
Given the evidence, these prosecutors said, the Cecil County state's attorney had little hope of obtaining a murder indictment, which requires clear proof that a suspect intended to commit murder and caused a victim's death.
But in another jurisdiction, they said, the case might have resulted in a manslaughter indictment, and they suggested that Cecil County's conservative social environment may have led prosecutors to assume they would not get an indictment on serious charges.
Diana G. Detweiler, coordinator of the Cecil County Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Program, which also runs a shelter for battered women, partially agreed with that assessment.
"We've had problems in the past with getting a follow-through with prosecutions on domestic violence," she said. "If this man gets off without serious charges, it sends a clear message that it's all right to batter your spouse."
First-degree murder is punishable by the death penalty or life in prison; second-degree murder carries a 30-year sentence. The maximum penalty for manslaughter is 10 years.
Ironically, that is half the maximum sentence for assault, although several prosecutors said manslaughter nearly always brings a stiffer sentence. Many first offenders convicted of assault receive only probation.
The argument leading up to Mrs. Melvin's death apparently started in the Island Inn bar and restaurant hours before she was found unconscious.
Prosecutors said they will present testimony to show that the couple met there the evening before Mrs. Melvin's death to celebrate her 34th birthday.
Mr. Melvin, 30, a truck driver, apparently became angry when his wife stopped to hug an old friend, witnesses told the family.
Mr. Melvin allegedly left the bar and drove home, while his wife of nearly three years stayed until 2 a.m. and drove home with a
friend. The friend passed out on a couch inside the Melvin's home. She has told deputies she did not recall hearing any argument or fight.
The prosecution has no other witness than Mr. Melvin. His admission to the sheriff's deputy that he struck his wife is the foundation on which the prosecution's assault case rests.
Mr. Melvin's attorney, Christopher J. Eastridge, declined to discuss the case except to say that his client intended to plead innocent.
Whatever the outcome of the trial, it is likely that it will answer at least some of the questions that Mrs. Melvin's death has raised for her family.
"What did happen to her? How much did she suffer?" Mrs. Crossan wondered. "We don't know."
In the meantime, Mrs. Melvin's family -- two teen-age sons from a previous marriage, her parents and her sister -- are fighting to make sure that her husband does not reap a financial windfall resulting from her death.
They have filed two wrongful death suits against Mr. Melvin in hopes of preventing him from collecting more than $100,000 in life insurance policies Mrs. Melvin got through her job as an assistant manager at a department store in Havre de Grace.