Her final words
Defense, state rest before closing arguments in Bassett murder trial
WEBSTER CITY — “I am done,” said Andrea Sokolowski through a text message to defendant Zackery Bassett in her final moments before she was reported unresponsive in September 2018. “Oh, I am leaving.”
Bassett, charged with first-degree murder in her death, called her seven times after those messages in a span of six minutes.
“You made me leave,” she said in her final messages after those calls, shown to the jury after witnesses testified to how she was forming a plan to leave Bassett in the months preceding her death. “Yes, you made me leave.”
But what happened in her final moments in the couple’s living room comes down to a dichotomy posed by opposing counsel.
The state posits Sokolowski was strangled to death by Bassett; the defense claims she was accidentally killed by positional asphyxia in the course of rough sex.
Today, the jury will begin to decide whether Bassett is guilty of first-degree murder or a lesser crime in the death of Sokolowski: second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, assault causing injury or assault. The last two options are misdemeanors.
Though the state couldn’t put the victim on the stand, her words were delivered through their final witness Monday as a Waterloo police officer delivered a forensic analysis of both Bassett’s and Sokolowski’s cell phones.
Officer Jeremy Pohl, who extracted data from their phones for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, started reading the messages from earlier in the day as the state hoped to portray Bassett’s state of mind on the day they allege he killed her.
“Sorry, mom, I’ve been aggravated all day,” Bassett texted the contact labeled “Mom” in his phone that evening, minutes before the heated exchange with Sokolowski. “This b – – – -, I tell you. Love and miss you.”
Minutes later, he said it’s “amazing what a mind can call normal.” The exchange between him and Sokolowski, which started just before 9 p.m., was prompted after he asked her an otherwise innocuous question: “Where are you?”
A final call was answered by Sokolowski at 10:06 p.m. The next calls Bassett made after that were to his mother and 911.
After the state rested its case Monday morning, the defense presented a string of mostly brief witnesses to bolster its case before resting, too.
DCI Special Agent Scott Ely recalled an interview of the couple’s Webster City neighbor, who had noticed their fights before, described as “normal couple fighting,” but didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary before first responders came the night of the death.
An Iowa Central Community College instructor, called by the defense, could not confirm whether one would be able to tell if CPR had been done on someone prior to a first responder coming on the scene.
“We would probably not be able to tell that,” said Julie Mertens, who instructs CPR and runs simulations with EMT, paramedic and nursing students.
The state asserts that Sokolowski had been unconscious without CPR for about 30 minutes — her lips already blue — before the defendant called 911.
The defense’s forensic pathologist, Dr. Brad Randall, offered medical expertise to back their theory that the victim died of positional asphyxia.
“Is there a plausible explanation for everything Dr. Catellier determined was concerning?” asked defense attorney Michelle Wolf, referring to the petechial hemorrhaging the state medical examiner cited in her autopsy.
“Yes,” Randall said. “Positional asphyxia literally means the body is in some sort of unusual position that they aren’t able to either get air into their mouth, air into their chest, or blood flow into the head is compromised.”
He said Bassett’s interview with the DCI, where Bassett described flipping Sokolowski and holding her in a compromised position against the couch, could be a plausible explanation for the cause of her death.
“I think his description is a reasonable description for positional asphyxia,” Randall said.
He highlighted a perhaps weak point in the state’s case with Catellier’s inconclusive manner of death, saying a determination for a manner of death like homicide or suicide requires 51% surety to make. He also noted that only about 5% of cases at large state medical examiner offices end up with inconclusive manner of death rulings.
But even positional asphyxia might not explain things the defendant said in his DCI interview, which included a moment where Bassett said that Sokolowski lost consciousness nearly instantly and without warning. Even positional asphyxia requires about 20 to 30 seconds of consistent pressure blocking the blood flow to the brain to cause loss of consciousness, and at least a few more minutes to cause permanent death.
Bassett said in his interview that he almost immediately started doing CPR on Sokolowski after noticing that she lost consciousness.
On cross-examination, the defense’s only expert witness conceded that it would take considerable, sustained pressure to cause the kind of pinpoint spots that freckled Sokolowski’s face, eyelids and mouth in autopsy photos.
“Petechiae is a class indicator of strangulation, isn’t it?” asked Assistant Attorney General Keisha Cretsinger.
“I don’t know if indicator is (the correct word), but it’s a warning sign of strangulation,” Randall replied.
Attorneys will deliver closing arguments today before putting the decision in the jury’s hands.