The recent decision to reclassify the 1972 death of a Baltimore County boy as a homicide hinged on the conclusion that the youngster's injuries rendered impossible the timeline of events given by his mother, charged this week with murder.
Five-year-old Edward Randolph Coffman's injuries would have left him unconscious within two hours - a shorter period than the 4 1/2 hours his mother said passed between a fall in a bathtub and his bedtime, Dr. David Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, concluded, court documents released yesterday show.
"Based on that determination, Dr. Fowler ... determined that his manner of death would be changed from undetermined to Homicide," according to documents charging the mother, 57-year-old Diane B. Coffman, with murder.
Coffman, who was arrested Tuesday, told investigators that the child fell in the bathtub in their home in the Woodlawn area while arguing over toys with his 3-year-old brother, and that she discovered the older boy dead in his bed the next morning, charging documents show.
Yesterday, her lawyer, Domenic R. Iamele, said his client maintains her innocence, and he questioned the new findings.
"I don't know what makes the threshold of consciousness so precise. Maybe it is. I don't think it is," he said. Besides, he said, he can't be certain his client got her times right. "She's dealing with a kid who's injured. Do you think she's looking at the clock?"
Coffman, a Florida resident for the past five years, was released on a $25,000 bond yesterday, four months after a second son, now 35, sent Baltimore County police an e-mail saying that he believed his mother was responsible for his brother's death, court records show.
The two-paragraph e-mail from Richard A. Coffman also described "conditions in the family in subsequent years," said county police spokesman Bill Toohey, who would not release a copy of the correspondence.
Iamele described Richard Coffman as a "disgruntled son" who, according to his family, has "very severe, very significant issues himself." The lawyer hinted at a possible defense - that roughhousing between the boys in the bathtub could have been to blame.
He said Diane Coffman is "aghast" at being charged in her son's death.
Richard Coffman, who apparently has lived in the Bolton Hill area of Baltimore, could not be located for comment.
The e-mail from Coffman led to a re-examination of the original autopsy report on his brother, which determined that Edward died of a blunt-force injury to his head but ruled the manner of death "undetermined," according to police and charging documents.
The autopsy found that the boy suffered 17 injuries, some which were "open" and untreated, charging documents say. The medical examiner at the time, Dr. Ronald N. Kornblum, found that head wounds, described as being on both sides of the boy's face, were "multiple and of varying ages," according to court papers.
Fowler's office declined yesterday to release a copy of the autopsy report, noting the continuing investigation into Edward's death.
Linda A. Koban, an attorney with Court Appointed Special Advocates in Baltimore, said society was "not as suspicious" three decades ago about injuries to children. "Now recognizing an abused child is almost a science, with a constellation of signs, or injuries, telling a clear story," said Koban, who was a juvenile court master in Baltimore for six years.
A review board at the state medical examiner's office studies the unexplained or violent deaths of infants to 17-year-olds, said Dr. Timothy F. Doran, chairman of Greater Baltimore Medical Center's department of pediatrics and former head of a Howard County child advocacy group, who previously sat on the review board.
Still, he said, "Five red lights should have gone off when that child's body was seen in an autopsy."
Dr. Howard Dubowitz, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said there is a greater awareness of the mechanics of child injuries than there was decades ago.
During yesterday's bail review before Baltimore County District Judge Nancy M. Cohen, prosecutor John Cox recommended a $50,000 bail, saying his office does not believe that Coffman is a "current threat." Iamele asked that his client, who he said lost another son in 1985 in an accidental shooting in Fort Polk, La., be released on personal recognizance.
Sun staff writer Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.