AUSTIN -- Prosecutors handling the case of 2-year-old Colton Turner could face hurdles in filing additional charges in his death, legal and forensic experts say.
His mother, 20-year-old Meagan Work, and her boyfriend, Michael Brandt Turner, 29, are currently charged with evidence tampering, a second-degree felony. More severe charges, such as murder or injury to a child, are first-degree felonies for which they could face up to life in prison.
What charges prosecutors ultimately file likely will depend on whether medical examiners can determine how Colton died -- a determination that could be difficult because his remains were in a shallow grave for about two months.
"When all you have left are the bones, you can only work with the bones. You don't have any organs that you can examine for natural causes of death and you don't have soft tissue where superficial injuries would be located," said Dr. Judy Melinek, a nationally known forensic pathologist based in San Francisco.
Austin attorney Mindy Montford, a former prosecutor who has handled child abuse cases, said a cause of death can be important to the prosecution's case — and difficult without it — but that cases may still proceed without one.
"You are not always going to have a cause of death," she said. "So there is a way that if they cannot determine what the cause of death would be, they can present it to the grand jury just as an 'unknown' based on the information we have. But they are going to want to try to move forward with as much information as they can gather just to eliminate any questions possible grand jurors might have."
Austin attorney Brad Urrutia said, however, that he thinks information about how Colton died will be critical to the prosecution's case.
"They have to find a cause of death that somehow relates to an injury," he said. He also said if they are unable to learn a cause of death, prosecutors could still build a case based on circumstantial evidence.