Experts Call Girl's Fatal Fall An Accident They Testified For The Defense In The Murder Trial Of Matthew Roncone. Prosecution Experts Disagree.

Posted: July 30, 1996

WOODBURY — Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht testified yesterday that he found no evidence of foul play in the death of 4-year-old Chentele Marie Stenger as the defense continued to call upon high-profile experts in the murder trial of Matthew Roncone.

Roncone, 32, of Woodbury, is accused of killing Stenger, the daughter of his onetime girlfriend, Christine A. Priest, at his former Mantua Township house on Dec. 11, 1993. James P. Lynch, Gloucester County first assistant prosecutor, contends that Roncone hurled the girl down the stairwell, a child-abuse homicide. Roncone has maintained that the girl fell by accident.

Wecht said he believed the injuries Stenger suffered were consistent with a ``free-fall'' accident and contradicted prosecution testimony that there was a delay of up to 30 minutes before Roncone summoned paramedics.

Wecht, 65, was re-elected coroner in Allegheny County last year after holding that post from 1970 until 1980. He was the first coroner permitted to examine John F. Kennedy's autopsy records in 1972 and has been critical of the Warren Commission's single-bullet theory.

Yesterday, Wecht conceded that he is being paid $6,000 plus expenses to render his opinion. ``I don't believe this child, tragically, was salvageable'' because of her fall and brain damage, Wecht said.

Two other defense witnesses weren't paid for their services yesterday.

Lucy Rorke, a neuropathologist with the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office, was subpoenaed by the defense after Dr. James Lewis, Gloucester County Medical examiner, consulted with her in the case. Yesterday she testified that she disagreed with Lewis' ruling that Stenger's death was caused by shaken baby syndrome.

Derek A. Bruce, a specialist in pediatrics and neurosurgery who is with the University of Texas Southwest Science Center in Dallas, said he believed Stenger fell ``from some height and probably struck the right side of the head.'' He, too, said he believed the fall was accidental.

Furthermore, the fact that paramedics testified that the girl was ``warm to the touch'' indicated that they were called to the scene promptly after the accident, even though she was found unclothed, Bruce said. One hour later, after she was admitted to Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center, her temperature had dropped to 93 degrees from the norm of 98.6 degrees, typical in brain-injury cases, he said.

Earlier in the trial, John E. Smialek, Maryland chief medical examiner, said he believed up to 30 minutes had elapsed before a call had been placed, typical of ``delayed presentation'' in child abuse cases.

Bruce said he testifies in up to five trials a year, often on behalf of the prosecution in child abuse cases. Bruce said he would not accept any payment for his services in the Roncone trial, which began July 16.

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