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Monday, June 5, 2017

Forensic Toxicology: Brittany Murphy's Cause and Manner of Death

     In 2003, 26-year-old film actress Brittany Murphy purchased a house in West Hollywood that had been owned by Britney Spears. Four years later, she married a British writer/director named Simon Monjack who moved into the multi-million dollar mansion.

     At eight o'clock Sunday morning on December 20, 2009, Brittany Murphy's mother Sharon called 911 to report that her daughter had collapsed in the shower. Paramedics found the 32-year-old actress unconscious. Two hours later, at a nearby hospital, Brittany Murphy died. 
     Shortly after her death, Murphy's husband Simon Monjack told a People magazine reporter that Brittany had been suffering from laryngitis and flu-like symptoms. He said she had been taking antibiotics and was on herbal remedies that wouldn't speed up her heart. Monjack insisted there were no substances in the house at the time of her death that could have harmed her. "There was prescription medication in the house for her female time and some cough syrup. That was it," he said.
     In February 2010, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office released Murphy's autopsy report that revealed she had died of "multiple drug intoxication, pneumonia, and iron deficiency anemia." According to a toxicological analysis of her blood, Murphy possessed elevated levels of hydrocodine, acetaminophen, and chloropheniramine, ingredients commonly found in over-the-counter cold medications. 
     As a result of the autopsy and toxicological findings, Murphy's manner of death went into the books as natural, caused by a weakened state of health made worse by an accidental overdose of cold medications. According to the coroner, Brittany Murphy's death could have been prevented by a visit to her doctor. If the Los Angeles Coroner's Office's cause and manner of death determinations were correct, the young actress had contributed to her own demise. 
     In the months following the film star's sudden death, stories appeared in the tabloid press suggesting that she had died from anorexia or from an accidental drug overdose. Rumors were also circulating that she had committed suicide. 
     On May 23, 2010, at nine thirty at night, someone called 911 requesting medical assistance at the West Hollywood home still occupied by Simon Monjack. Emergency responders found the dead body of the 40-year-old once married to Brittany Murphy. He had been scheduled that fall for triple-bypass surgery. 
     According to the forensic pathologist who performed Monjack's autopsy at the Los Angeles Coroner's Office, he had died a natural death caused by pneumonia and anemia. The toxicology report showed he had been taking prescription medication. 
     In response to rumors of foul play in Murphy's and Monjack's deaths, assistant coroner Ed Winter told reporters that "at the time of their deaths both of them were in very poor health. I don't think they ate correctly or took care of themselves. They didn't seek medical attention."
     Brittany Murphy's father, a man named Angelo Bertolotti who had served three stretches in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for various racketeering offenses, had never been a factor in Murphy's life. But after her death, he became involved by filing a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Coroner's Office and the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Bertolotti brought the legal action in an effort to force the coroner's office to test his daughter's hair for traces of heavy metal poisons. Bertolotti believed that additional toxicological testing would prove that she had not died from pneumonia, anemia, and a lethal mix of cold medications. 
     The Los Angeles Coroner's Office defended its decision not to test Murphy's hair follicles for traces of heavy metal poison on the grounds there was no indication that she had died from arsenic poisoning. (Professional death investigators, rather than basing their conclusions on personal assumptions, apply forensic science to unravel the mystery of sudden, unexplained deaths.) 
     In July 2012, a judge dismissed Angelo Bertolotti's lawsuit. However, as a consolation, Bertolotti acquired, from the coroner's office, samples of his daughter's hair, blood and tissue for independent toxicological testing. He promptly sent the samples to a private lab in Colorado for analysis. 
     The private laboratory, in November 2013, reported high levels of ten heavy metal poisons in the submitted Brittany Murphy samples. According to the toxicological report, Murphy's system contained, among other poisons, aluminum, manganese, and barium, poisons found in rat poison, pesticides, and insecticides.  According to the private crime lab, presence of these poisons strongly suggested the possibility of a homicidal poisoning. 
     Armed with the private toxicological findings, Angelo Bertolotti demanded that the Los Angeles Police Department re-open its investigation into Brittany Murphy's death. He also wanted the Los Angeles Coroner's Office to change its manner and cause of death rulings to homicidal poisoning. 
     Speaking to reporters after the release of the private toxicological report, Bertolotti said, "Vicious rumors, spread by tabloids, unfairly smeared Brittany's reputation. My daughter was neither anorexic or a drug addict." 
     A few days after the new revelations in the case, Bertolotti appeared on the TV show "Good Morning America." Bertolotti said, "I have a feeling that there was a definite murder situation here. It's poison, yes, I know that." Bertolotti pointed out that the Colorado forensic lab was an accredited facility that "cannot be ignored."
     Los Angeles Chief Coroner's investigator Craig R. Harvey, in response to the private laboratory's toxicological findings, said this to reporters: "The Los Angeles Coroner's Office has no plans to reopen our inquiry into the [Murphy] death. We stand by our original reports."

     In speaking to a reporter with Fox News on November 20, 2013, addiction specialist Dr. Damon Raskin said the private toxicology results made him suspicious of foul play. Moreover, "other than lab error, there is no other good medical explanation for these abnormal levels of heavy metals. Therefore, some type of poisoning is clearly a possibility."

     Fox reporter Hollie McKay also questioned Dr. Shilpi Agarwal, a Los Angeles based physician who said it was extremely unlikely that Murphy had elevated levels of the heavy metals in her system without being given supplements or unintentionally ingesting them.

     Dr. Michael Baden, the famed forensic pathologist, had a different interpretation of the new toxicological findings. He said this to a Fox News reporter: "The grouping of heavy metals is more suggestive of hair product use--dyes, soaps, heat, etc. than of rat poison….When hair samples are stored for so long, the increased sensitivity of new chemical tests will pick up whatever was in the hair's container. Was the container tested?"
     Rather than defend a premature conclusion, the Los Angeles Coroner's Office should have acknowledged the new toxicological evidence and opened an investigation. As of this writing, the case remained closed. 

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