RAVENNA, Ohio — Breyona Reddick, a 19-year-old Cleveland woman who went to Hiram College on scholarship to study nursing in the fall of 2019, insisted to the doctors who discovered an umbilical cord in her in October that she had never been pregnant.
She offered to show them photos of two negative pregnancy tests she took to prove it.
She said the same thing to Hiram’s police chief, who questioned her at Geauga Medical Center after a cleaning crew at the college dorm where she lived found a newborn dead in a trash bag.
And, after doctors diagnosed her with psychosis and local amnesia and admitted her in the hospital’s psychiatric unit, she still said she did not remember being pregnant.
Now, after a deputy medical examiner used a widely discredited test that his own boss said was unreliable to help him determine that the 7-pound baby Reddick delivered in her dorm bathroom was born alive, the former high school honors student faces a prison sentence of up to 16½ years in prison.
Reddick pleaded guilty April 12 to involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony. Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci had initially sought multiple counts of aggravated murder that could have put the woman behind bars for life if a jury had convicted her.
The sentencing hearing is set for June 21.
Reddick is being represented by Aaron Schwartz and Joseph Patituce at Patituce and Associates law firm.
“This case was an unmitigated tragedy for everyone involved,” Patituce said. “We appreciate the prosecutor’s reasonable approach to the case and hope Miss Reddick can move forward.”
Vigluicci did not return a voicemail seeking comment.
Reddick, who grew up near East 119th Street and Kinsman Road in Cleveland, went to the Cleveland Clinic shortly after she graduated from John Adams High School in June 2019 with complaints of painful cramps during her menstrual cycle, according to court records. She told a doctor the cramps, which usually occurred on the first day of her cycle, were sometimes so debilitating she would vomit and miss school.
A doctor diagnosed her with dysmenorrhea, a condition of severe menstrual cramps, and prescribed her medication.
Reddick, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall, weighed 108 pounds at the visit, the records say. She would have been five months pregnant.
Reddick turned 19 on Oct. 16, 2019, and her family later reported that she had been complaining that she was constipated at a gathering, according to records.
Reddick said her father gave her a laxative and told her to drink some apple juice, the documents indicate.
At some point, overnight between Oct. 17 and Oct. 18, Reddick got out of bed and went to use the bathroom.
Reddick said her roommate came to help when she heard Reddick struggling and helped her to go to the bathroom after her dayslong constipation.
About 11 a.m. Oct. 18, 2019, members of a cleaning crew found a black trash bag inside a bathroom at the Whitcomb Dorm and carried it outside to put it in a dumpster, according to court records. One of the members decided to open the bag and discovered the newborn’s body wrapped in pieces of clothing.
Paramedics did not attempt to resuscitate the baby and pronounced him dead.
Police did not find any witnesses in the dorm who saw or heard the baby alive.
When Reddick went to the hospital about 3 p.m. that day, she weighed 110 pounds, just two pounds more than her weight at her appointment four months earlier, records say.
‘Sweet’ and cooperative
She insisted she had never been pregnant and told staff she was a virgin, according to records. She said she believed paramedics took her to the hospital to treat her constipation.
Doctors diagnosed her with psychosis, local amnesia and dissociation, a condition where pregnant women become detached from the reality that they are pregnant.
They had her involuntarily committed to the hospital’s psychiatric ward, where she spent five days undergoing therapy and treatment, records say. Doctors noted that she was “sweet” and cooperative, but still said she had no recollection of being pregnant or giving birth.
The Portage County coroner’s office asked its counterpart in Cuyahoga County to conduct the autopsy. Todd Barr, the deputy medical examiner, did the procedure.
Barr determined the newborn weighed 7 pounds, 15 ounces and was 22.5 inches long. There was no food but meconium, the dark fluid that is in the stomach of fetuses and newborns until replaced with milk or formula.
Barr examined the lungs, which he reported being a dark, reddish purple, and found several air sacs were partially expanded.
Barr also conducted the controversial lung-float test, where the lungs are placed in liquid. If the organ floats, then the theory is that it contains oxygen, which is a sign that the newborn had drawn a breath — and was, therefore, born alive.
The lung floated, Barr wrote.
Barr cut the lung into pieces, and the pieces also floated, the report said.
Barr noted that he found no evidence of decomposition and no effort to resuscitate the child.
Barr determined that the baby boy was born alive and died of “asphyxiation due to exposure and postpartum inattention,” according to the autopsy.
The Portage County coroner’s office used the determination to deem that the boy’s death a homicide.
Reddick was indicted in March 2020 on three counts of aggravated murder, one count of murder, one count of felonious assault, one count of endangering children and one count of tampering with evidence.
Schwartz, Reddick’s attorney, questioned Barr’s use of the lung-float test in court filings and asked Common Pleas Judge Becky Doherty to bar his testimony about the test from court.
‘The test that won’t die’
The test, which was been used since the 1700s, has been criticized by forensic pathologists for decades as unreliable.
University of Kentucky Professor Gregory Davis, who is the state’s former medical examiner and a professor, calls the procedure “the test that won’t die.”
Air can get into a stillborn baby’s lung through multiple ways both during and after birth, Davis said. The act of squeezing through a woman’s birth canal can compress a stillborn baby’s chest cavity and lungs, and once the baby is out of the canal, the lungs expand and can take in air, Davis said.
Even a microscopic amount of decomposition in the lungs, which begins within the first 24 hours of death, could result in gas forming, Davis said. That, too, could cause the lungs to float, he said.
“All that test tells you is that there is enough air or gas in that tissue that makes it float,” Davis said. “It doesn’t tell you that the baby was born live. That’s the intellectual leap that some of my colleagues just can’t seem to give up.”
Forensic pathologists have been pointing out these flaws for decades.
Lester Adelson, Cuyahoga County’s former chief deputy coroner and a Case Western Reserve University professor, wrote in a 1974 textbook “The Pathology of Homicide” that the presence of air in a baby’s lungs “is not an ironclad guarantee” that the baby drew breaths after its birth and was therefore born alive.
“The lungs of many stillborn children, delivered at or near full term, show evidence of space formation in their air sacs,” Adelson wrote.
Adelson said that the only certain evidence of a live birth are well expanded lungs, food in the stomach or the appearance that the stump of the umbilical cord had begun to heal.
The author wrote that absent that “unassailable” evidence, “the honest pathologist” is “legally bound not to diagnose live birth.”
‘Not scientifically reliable’
Three months after Barr used the test to help determine that Reddick birthed a live baby, his boss, Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas Gilson, signed his name to a letter that Davis wrote to a judge in Maryland that called the lung-float test “not a scientifically reliable test or an indicator of live birth.”
“Given the education, training, experience, positions, and number of the undersigned, it is clear that the float test is not generally accepted within the forensic pathology community,” the letter said.
Gilson, as well as another deputy medical examiner from Cuyahoga County, David Dolinak, were among 46 medical examiners, coroners, professors and forensic pathologists who signed the letter.
Gilson’s spokesman Chris Harris said that Gilson “stands by his signature” on the letter.
“Dr. Gilson doesn’t feel it’s a reliable test as an indicator of live birth when that’s the only test used,” Harris said. “It shouldn’t be the only testing used.”
Harris said that Barr did rely on other testing to determine Reddick’s child was born alive. When asked what that was, he said he did not know.
The five-page autopsy report that Barr authored does not describe any other testing.
Davis said coroners and medical examiners who still use the test often defend it by saying it was not the only test they relied upon. However, Davis said there is no test or microscopic examination that can determine with scientific certainty that a baby was born alive.
“Garbage test plus garbage test still equals garbage,” Davis said.
Even when the mother has a stillborn child in a hospital, Davis said, the cause of death is unknown 40 percent of the time.
The New York-based organization, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, has also bashed the use of the lung-float test.
“Pregnancy loss is sadly common, and the cause is often unknown, and those losses should be met with care, not criminalization rooted in junk science like the lung-float test,” the organization’s staff attorney, Lindsey English Hull, said. “The continued use of the test underscores the dangerous trend of blaming and criminalizing people for their pregnancy outcomes. And those consequences are devastating and long-lasting for the women, on top of mourning a loss.”
Reddick’s attorneys hired a colleague of Davis at the University of Kentucky who reviewed Barr’s autopsy report and other evidence in the case as part of an effort to convince Doherty to prevent Barr from testifying about any conclusions he made as a result of his use of the lung-float test.
The expert, John Hunsaker, said he agreed with Barr’s autopsy findings except for his determination that the child was born alive.
Hunsaker wrote that “indisputable evidence” that a baby was born alive is proof that it took breaths. The problem is that there are no findings that can meet that standard.
“It is medically reasonable to conclude that there is no persuasive investigative, medical or scientific evidence that Baby Boy Reddick was born alive,” Hunsaker wrote.
Doherty ruled against Reddick after a hearing in October. She wrote in a one-page order that Hunsaker admitted on the stand that he sometimes uses the lung-float test during autopsies and that he did not know of any laboratories that outright ban the procedure. Doherty also cited Barr’s statements that he did not rely solely on the lung-float test to determine the child was born alive and held that his findings, and use of the lung-float test, can be presented to jurors.
The trial was set for April 19.
Reddick’s attorneys also hired Adele Lewis, the Tennessee Department of Health’s chief medical examiner, to testify at the trial. She came to the same conclusion as Hunsaker.
“It is clear that the ‘float test’ cannot be considered to be conclusive or even necessarily indicative of a live birth,” Lewis wrote in court documents. “Certainly, there is insufficient circumstantial or autopsy evidence in this case to conclude that this infant was born alive.”
A similar case, miles away
Two weeks before Reddick’s case was set to go to trial, jurors in neighboring Geauga County convicted a 51-year-old woman of murder for leaving a newborn in a dumpster in 1993. Authorities found the child more than a month after its death, and animals had eaten parts of its body. A medical examiner, using the lung-float test, determined the child was born alive.
It took investigators until 2019 to identify the newborn’s mother, Gail Eastwood Ritchey. Her defense attorneys insisted that she did not know she was pregnant, and the child was stillborn. They argued to the jury that the test is unreliable.
Jurors convicted her of murder April 4. She was sentenced on May 25 to life in prison.
One week later, Reddick pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after prosecutors agreed not to pursue murder charges that, like Ritchey, could have put her behind bars for life.
Reddick’s case raises the question of why, after dozens of medical examiners across the country say the test is not scientifically reliable, authorities still use it to determine whether a child was born alive.
“I think we hate uncertainty,” said Davis, the professor at the University of Kentucky.
Davis said that forensic pathologists are often portrayed on TV or in movies as having all the answers when stumped investigators are trying to solve a crime. He said it can be easy for forensic pathologists to buy into that narrative. He said the job is also full of pressure.
“The police, the grieving families and sometimes even the media and the fourth estate are always coming to us, wanting to know these answers,” he said. “It’s always difficult to say, ‘I’m sorry, but in this particular case, I don’t know.’
“I think we as Americans, and as human beings, have a difficult time wrestling with uncertainty and nuance. I think that plays out in cases like this.”