WOBURN, Mass. — When police were called to the childhood home of Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan, they found Kerrigan’s 70-year-old father lying dead on the kitchen floor.
Her older brother, Mark, was charged with manslaughter, accused of causing his father’s death during a violent physical struggle.
Since then, Nancy and the rest of her family have stood by her brother, insisting that he is not responsible for Daniel Kerrigan’s death.
As Mark Kerrigan’s trial is about to begin, Nancy Kerrigan finds herself in the unwanted position of being called as a witness by prosecutors.
Prosecutors plan to call the skater to testify about her father’s health before his death. Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Keeley said in court this week that Nancy Kerrigan told police her father appeared robust, and had chopped down tress and moved furniture in the weeks before his death.
Those statements support the prosecution’s claim that Daniel Kerrigan appeared to be in good health before Mark Kerrigan allegedly grabbed his father around the neck and he fell to the floor.
A state medical examiner found that Daniel Kerrigan died of cardiac dysrhythmia — a loss or interruption of a normal heartbeat that can lead to cardiac arrest — after a physical altercation with his son. Police testified during pretrial hearings that Mark Kerrigan told them he “grabbed his father by the throat” before the elder Kerrigan collapsed.
But the Kerrigan family has called the medical examiner’s findings “unjustified” and insists that Daniel Kerrigan died of a long-standing heart condition. In a letter released several weeks after he father’s death, Nancy Kerrigan said she and her family planned to “help my brother fight.”
Legal experts say the prosecution’s plan to call the two-time Olympic medal winner as a witness could backfire if she comes across sympathetic toward her brother during cross-examination by the defense.
“If she has star power, one danger you always run is the jury could transfer their liking of her toward the person she’s sympathetic toward,” said Michael Cassidy, a professor at Boston College Law School.
Jury selection in the case is scheduled to begin Friday in Woburn Superior Court in a case that will rely heavily on medical testimony from experts on both sides.
Mark Kerrigan’s lawyer said Nancy Kerrigan plans to attend the trial “to be here for her brother.”
No one disputes that Daniel Kerrigan collapsed and died after an argument with his son.
But jurors will have to decide whether Mark Kerrigan caused his father’s death.
Kerrigan’s lawyers say the elder man died because he had a significant blockage of his major coronary arteries and suffered a heart attack. They say an autopsy showed he had had undiagnosed heart attacks in the past.
Eight experts — mainly medical doctors — are named on a joint witness list filed by prosecutors and Kerrigan’s defense team. Legal experts who rely on medical testimony in their cases say the jury will have to decide which medical theory to believe.
“The defense appears to be trying to create an impression that the father was a ticking time bomb and that at any time he may have died based upon his underlying condition,” said Andrew Meyer, a Boston attorney who specializes in medical malpractice cases.
“But the prosecution will say that without Mark’s attack, there would not have been any kind of a heart incident that would cause his death,” Meyer said.
David White, a Boston attorney whose firm also specializes in medical cases, said prosecutors could have a hard time proving to the jury that Mark Kerrigan’s brief scuffle with his father caused his death.
“Unless they can overwhelm the defense experts, the jury is just left saying it could be 50-50 between the experts for each side,” White said. “Where an individual has significant coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, it’s going to be difficult for them to demonstrate that the confrontation was the cause of the death.”
Neither prosecutors nor Kerrigan’s defense attorneys would comment before the trial.
But prosecutors have said Mark Kerrigan’s actions set in motion his father’s death.
“This defendant should have known that the cruel acts that he committed against his elderly father, including grabbing him by the neck with enough force to cause a fracture, were highly likely to result in substantial harm and endanger his father’s life,” Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone said after Kerrigan was indicted for manslaughter.
Prosecutors say Mark Kerrigan became drunk and belligerent when his father would not let him use the family telephone after Mark called the wife of his cousin more than 20 times the night of Jan. 23, 2010.
After midnight, the argument escalated into violence, when Mark Kerrigan pushed, grabbed and shoved his father, knocking several pictures off a wall, prosecutors said.
Police testified during pretrial hearings that Mark Kerrigan told them he “grabbed his father by the throat” before he collapsed to the floor.
Kerrigan’s lawyer, Janice Bassil, has said prosecutors inaccurately portrayed the altercation as a “violent and prolonged struggle.” Bassil said Mark Kerrigan’s mother, Brenda, told police she saw her son and husband “in a bear hug” pushing each other, but did not see any other physical interaction between them.
Kerrigan, 46, a plumber, has a long criminal record, with convictions dating back to 1991, including drunken driving, assault and battery and violation of a restraining order.
Nancy Kerrigan, who lives in Lynnfield, Mass., won the bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, and the silver at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. She was at the center of a saga at the U.S. Championships before the 1994 Games, when an assailant clubbed her right knee during practice and an investigation revealed that rival Tonya Harding had knowledge of the planning of the attack.