The team of Braulio M. Castillo’s defense attorneys in his first-degree murder trial opened its case Tuesday with a statement from a forensic pathologist who believes the Ashburn man’s estranged wife hanged herself.
Castillo is accused of killing his wife, Michelle, on March 19, 2014. Michelle Castillo was 43 and a mother of five children.
The case began when Michelle’s body was found hanging in a basement bathroom in her Belmont Station home. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office investigators say Castillo entered her home, killed Michelle during a struggle in her bedroom while their children slept in rooms down the hall and then staged a scene to make it appear she hanged herself in a basement bathroom.
The defense’s expert witness, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, a former chief medical examiner in Alberta, Canada, testified that the bruises and abrasions on Michelle’s body are consistent with other hanging victims she’s studied.
She said the markings on Michelle’s neck, cheek and right arm appear as though she hanged herself with an extension chord, and then hit the shower wall. She said the bruise on her cheek was most likely caused by the chord’s plug hitting her in the face.
Speaking to the marks around Michelle’s neck, Sauvageau said it’s difficult, even impossible, for a person to strangle or smother a victim and then try to make it look like a hanging because the marks would be different. “It’s virtually impossible that you’re lucky enough that the body will naturally hang and leave the same ligature marks,” she said.
In taking questions from Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Alejandra Rueda, Sauvageau said that there were additional markings on Michelle’s neck that she believed were not caused by a hanging. She said those were likely caused after her death by investigators or a medical examiner.
Rueda suggested they could have also been caused immediately after her death by Castillo, when he was moving her body. But Sauvageau said she believes they were caused later because of the yellowish tint of the bruises.
Rueda asked Sauvageau how much she was being paid to testify in the case, to which she answered slightly more than $20,000.
Sauvageau’s statements contradict testimony from the prosecution’s expert witness, Constance DiAngelo, an assistant chief medical examiner for Northern Virginia who examined Michelle’s body in March 2014. During the trial’s first week, she said the markings on Michelle’s body indicate she was killed by strangulation and suffocation.
Emotions ran high in the courtroom last week when the defense asked the judge to declare a mistrial over notes found on Castillo’s phone. The notes, which the prosecution believe were written by Castillo, provide an account of Michelle’s whereabouts and browser search history.
The defense attorneys said that admitting the notes as evidence would break attorney-client privilege because they were saved copies of emails between Castillo and his divorce attorney at the time. And they said the prosecutors should have never looked at the emails.
Judge Stephen E. Sincavage denied the motion for mistrial, and said the documents could be admitted as evidence, citing that Castillo waived his privacy to documents on the phone when he handed it over to Detective McCaffrey.
The 18-day trial is scheduled through Friday. If convicted, Castillo faces 20 years to life in prison.