Dr. Thomas Bennett took the stand Wednesday morning in the State vs. Dharminder Vir Sen trial in 4th Judicial District Court. He is a physician and pathologist, with a sub-specialty as a forensic pathologist. His work is more diagnostic than treating, and his forensic training focuses on violent, sudden, unexplained or suspicious deaths and determining what causes them. He is based primarily in Billings at the morgue at St. Vincent's healthcare, and his autopsy experience goes back to 1976.
On August 27, 2009, Dr. Bennett performed the autopsy on Robert Ernst. Externally, he noted that there were two gunshot wounds on Mr. Ernst's body, with one bullet remaining inside -- a penetrated wound -- and one entrance/exit/re-entrance/re-exit pattern -- a perforated wound.
One bullet entered the upper left front area of his chest and traveled downward, ending at the lower left area of his back, in the 3rd lumbar area. Dr. Bennett reported that the injuries that bullet caused included damage to some of his intestines and colon, confirming what Dr. Jost had testified on Monday. Dr. Bennett had located the bullet and turned it over to one of the DCI agents present.
The other bullet had entered at the right of Mr. Ernst's navel, it exited, re-entered into a right groin fold, then finally exited from his right buttock. In order to line up the wounds, Dr. Bennett said that Mr. Ernst would have most likely been bent over or shot from above. This bullet injured skin, subcutaneous tissue and muscle.
Dr. Bennett told the Court that after completing his exam, he determined that Mr. Ernst died as a direct result of the bullet wound to the chest, because of the injuries to the internal organs and the amount of blood lost from those injuries.
On cross examination, Sen's attorney, Tim Cotton, confirmed that the second shot had not been life-threatening, and then focused his questions on Mr. Ernst's poor heart history. Dr. Bennett agreed that Mr. Ernst's heart had been a ticking time bomb, in that he'd had by-pass surgery for coronary artery disease. He also said that the arteries had been 80% - 90% narrowed for a long time.
Dr. Bennett said he also would have known from Dr. Jost's report that there had been several attempts at Sheridan Memorial Hospital to revive Mr. Ernst. However, although Cotton continued to ask Dr. Bennett if Mr. Ernst had died as a result of a heart attack rather than the gunshot wound, Dr. Bennett continued to respond by saying that he died from the extreme loss of blood. Dr. Bennett said, "he died of a gunshot wound but had a horrible heart...ultimately, we all die of the heart stopping -- that's the definition of death. But the cause in this case was the gunshot."