Nicola Furlong died of strangulation, key forensic witness tells Tokyo court

A key witness in the trial against the man accused of killing Nicola Furlong in Tokyo yesterday said postmortems confirmed the Co Wexford student had been strangled.

Dr Kenichi Yoshida, an expert in forensic medicine at the University of Tokyo and a member of the metropolitan medical examiner system, said that autopsy results had left little doubt that “excessive pressure” on the neck of Ms Furlong, 21, had been the cause of her death in a Tokyo hotel last May. Tests had shown that “[Nicola’s death] could not have been the result of natural causes”, said Dr Yoshida.

“In this case there was a very clear cause of death and that was compression of the neck... It is clear that she was killed.”

Asked by chief prosecutor Kenji Horikoshi if the DCU exchange student could have died as a result of intoxication or drugs, Dr Yoshida replied: “Absolutely not.”

Yoshida’s testimony cast serious doubt on Monday’s claims by the defense team of the accused, American musician Richard Hinds, that there was a “strong possibility” that cause of death had been brought about by a lethal mix of alcohol and drugs. Blood tests from the DCU exchange student, they said, had revealed the presence of high levels of alcohol and the substance Lidocaine and Alprazolan, the latter more commonly known as Xanax, a drug used in the treatment of panic and anxiety disorders.

While Dr Yoshida confirmed the presence of the drugs in blood samples taken from Ms Furlong, he repeatedly denied they, or indeed alcohol, could be connected to her death.

Indeed, the court heard from another witness that Lidocaine, a common anaesthetic, had been used during a common procedure to resuscitate the Curracloe woman at a Tokyo hospital 30 minutes after she had been found unconscious and seemingly without a pulse on the floor of Keio Plaza hotel room in which Hinds was staying.

The substance had been applied to an endotracheal tube during attempts to clear Ms Furlong’s trachea and facilitate breathing, said Dr Kenta Aida, who had performed most of the resuscitation measures on Ms Furlong at the critical care room of Tokyo Medical University Hospital.

The court also heard that Xanax had been prescribed for Ms Furlong by a doctor in Ireland due to bouts of stress and anxiety, the court was told.

Nicola’s father, Andrew, later confirmed that the family was well aware Nicola was taking Xanax for “mild” anxiety attacks, which had also been brought on by such events as her flight from Dublin to Tokyo in February last year.

Naoko Wada of the prosecution team said that eight of the Xanax 0.25mg tablets had been prescribed for Ms Furlong in Ireland in Feb 2012. Following her death seven had been recovered from her belongings, meaning one had been consumed between her return to Tokyo and the time of her death.

Forensic medicine expert Dr Yoshida, a veteran of 2,200 autopsies over a 34-year career, also gave his analysis of a number of discolourations, haemorrhages and abrasions that were found on Ms Furlong’s body during autopsy, which took place on May 25.

The most notable of these were a 5cm-wide white impression around her neck and evidence of haemorrhaging on her eyelids, eyeballs, face and scalp.

The impression on the neck was likely to have been caused by pressure made by something such as a belt-like object with a soft surface, while the haemorrhaging was the result of a significant struggle to breath, Dr Yoshida said.

Asked if items such as a towel or tank-top found in Hinds’ hotel room could have been used as such a weapon, Dr Yoshida said they could.

“It could have taken a few minutes between the time of strangulation and death,” Dr Yoshida said, adding that Ms Furlong had “almost certainly been in distress for some minutes”. It was also suggested that some scratch-like marks on the front of her neck may have been made by her fingers as she attempted to pull the object away from her neck.

During his opening statement on Monday, Hinds, 19, acknowledged he had “lightly pressed” Ms Furlong’s neck but “did not believe that to be the cause of her death” because the pressure was too light. He also denied using anything such as towel to do so.

Today, a fresh, calm-looking Hinds, who had shaved his goatee and sported a blue tie and charcoal-grey suit, spent much of the proceedings staring impassively, occasionally glancing through documents.

His defence team yesterday made efforts to suggest that needle marks found on Ms Furlong’s thighs during postmortems were related to drug abuse. Dr Aida of Tokyo Medical University Hospital dismissed this saying they were the result of him and his team trying to draw blood to assess oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

“This is a difficult procedure to administer when the heart has stopped” as in the case of Ms Furlong, he said.

In an attempt to find holes in Dr Yoshida’s statements, the defence team fired questions about the possibility of elevated alcohol levels and other substances in the blood possibly being at the root of Ms Furlong’s death.

A visibly irritated Dr Yoshida repeatedly asked if it was necessary to answer questions to which he had already made replies on several occasions.

In response to another question he asked the defence to come up with a question “that makes sense” before bluntly refusing to answer any more questions from a defence team apparently in some disarray.

“They are clutching at straws,” said Nicola’s father Andrew after a laborious day came to an close.

Outside the courts Angela and Andrea Furlong — who was holding a photo of her sister — looked visibly tired after the gruelling and distressing day, which had involved looking over photos of the autopsy.

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