Starvation permitted to be considered as an alternate cause of death

Appeal dismissed

R. v. Biddersingh, 2020 ONCA 241
Mar. 31, 2020
Tulloch J.A.

Appellant appealed a conviction of first-degree murder of his 17-year-old daughter. In 1994, the daughter's body had been found in a burning suitcase. In 2011, a member of the clergy approached the police with a story he had heard from the appellant's wife, which led to the identification of the daughter's body via DNA testing and the arrest of both the appellant and his wife.

During trial, the appellant's son testified that the daughter had been abused, starved, neglected and confined to their apartment. Dr. Pollanen, one of the medical professionals who testified during trial, stated that drowning was the likely cause of death due to the presence of diatoms, which are microscopic plants that sometimes grow in water, in the daughter's body. He also said that, if the diatom analysis would be considered unreliable, an alternate cause of death could be starvation.

On appeal, the appellant argued that the trial judge had incorrectly allowed Dr. Pollanen to provide an alternate cause of death in case the diatom analysis was set aside, and had incorrectly allowed the jury to consider starvation as an alternate cause of death.

Writing for the court, Justice Michael Tulloch said that, given that reliance on diatom analysis is considered controversial, the trial judge did not err in permitting Dr. Pollanen's opinion on the alternate cause of death as evidence.

With regard to allowing the jury to consider starvation as an alternate cause of death, Tulloch wrote that the trial judge also did not err. There was medical and non-medical evidence linking the daughter's death to starvation. The appellant’s son had testified that the daughter had been very skinny and ill, to the point that she could only crawl and could not keep her food down. The appellant’s wife also testified that she thought the daughter had died because of malnutrition.

Dr. Zlotkin, another medical professional, also made a report estimating that her weight prior to death had been 55 pounds. Given that her height was around five feet and five inches, her body mass index showed that she was severely underweight.

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