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Christopher Vaughn’s defense centers on role of wife’s medications

The Vaughn family: Christopher Kimberly Abigayle (right) behind CassandrBlake.

The Vaughn family: Christopher, Kimberly and Abigayle (right) behind Cassandra and Blake.

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Updated: October 18, 2012 6:13AM

Prosecutors spent nearly four weeks trying to prove Christopher Vaughn ruthlessly shot his wife and three children to death five years ago as they were buckled into the family’s SUV.

Jurors saw Vaughn fire a gun at a shooting range the night before, they learned he spent thousands of dollars at strip clubs in the days leading up to the shootings, and they heard a bizarre series of emails Vaughn wrote a man from Canada with whom he allegedly planned to disappear into the Yukon.

They also heard a bloodstain-pattern analyst suggest a bloody Christopher Vaughn was moving around in the SUV, and over his wife’s body, after she was shot.

But now that prosecutors have rested, Vaughn’s attorneys have begun the difficult task of trying to discredit the case prosecutors built on about 80 witnesses. They’ve said it was Vaughn’s wife, Kimberly, who shot him and the children before killing herself.

A key pillar of the defense is the pair of drugs found in Kimberly’s system when she died — an anti-seizure medication called Topamax and an antidepressant drug known as Nortriptyline. Vaughn defense attorney George Lenard said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned both can lead to an increased risk of suicide.

Years ago, when another suburban parent was accused of murdering her three young children, Marilyn Lemak claimed insanity. Jack Donahue, her defense attorney, said Friday it can be difficult to find doctors willing to testify about the dangers of FDA-approved drugs, like the ones he said his client took at the time and those found in Kimberly Vaughn’s body.

“No one wants to walk on that plane,” Donahue said.

Prosecutors accuse Christopher Vaughn of putting an elaborate exit scenario into motion June 14, 2007, killing his wife and children — 12-year-old Abigayle, 11-year-old Cassandra and 8-year-old Blake — and shooting himself twice to make it look like Kimberly pulled the trigger. Then, they said, he planned to disappear into the Canadian wilderness.

Vaughn’s attorneys argue his wife suffered from chronic migraines and anxiety and became suicidal on a mix of Topamax and Nortriptyline. A forensic pathologist has testified the amount of Nortriptyline in Kimberly’s system when she died was just at toxic levels, but he also said level readings can go up threefold after death.

The defense went as far as Wales to find a doctor to testify about the dangers of Topamax. Professor David Healy was expected to testify Topamax should be considered as an explanation for the shooting deaths of the Vaughn family “if there is not a convincing alternative explanation,” lawyers said in pre-trial hearings.

That was too speculative for Judge Daniel Rozak, who in June said Healy could only testify about the FDA’s warnings. Vaughn’s lawyers decided not to call him as a witness just for that.

Lemak’s attorney said he doesn’t see many similarities between the Vaughn case and his client’s. The Naperville woman was convicted of drugging and suffocating her three young children in March 1999. But Donahue argued she was insane at the time of the killings, and Friday he said she’d also been on medication.

While he managed to put an expert on the stand to talk about the general nature of major depression, Donahue said he couldn’t do the same for the drugs Lemak had been taking.

“We couldn’t find anybody reputable with enough credentials,” Donahue said.

Two of Vaughn’s attorneys, Jaya Varghese and Stephen Whitmore, did spend Friday afternoon questioning two of Kimberly Vaughn’s doctors, Pradeep Bhatia and Richard Steslow.

Steslow said he met with Kimberly a month before her death, and she mentioned an onset of increased anxiety around the time of her menstrual cycle. Bhatia, who began treating Kimberly for migraine headaches in November 2005, said diagnosing Kimberly as depressed or suicidal would be a mistake.

Bhatia met with Kimberly eight times between November 2005 and April 2007 as he tinkered with her dosages of the Topamax and Nortriptyline.

“Up until the time that I last saw her in April (2007), there was no indication of her being depressed,” Bhatia said.

“She came across as a very cheerful, nice young lady.”

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