December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Conor Shamus McInnerney was fussing last Jan. 12, just the third night of his life. So “his mother, Michelle, breastfed him while she and her husband, Martin, played music trivia with a friend in their Port Angeles, Wash., home. But around 7:30, the cozy, snowy evening turned into a nightmare when Conor suddenly stopped breathing. Within a half hour he lay clinging to life in Olympic Memorial Hospital ER, as Michelle, 21, stroked his brown hair. Working to revive him was a locally venerated pediatrician, Dr. Eugene Turner, 62. But at 9:55, Turner pronounced Conor dead, disconnected life support, handed him to his parents for one last kiss and left him to be readied for the morgue.

Then, at about 10:15, nurse Laurie Boucher heard Conor gasp. He hiccuped, slowly regained respiration, got pinker and, according to Boucher, eventually was even able to grasp her finger and that of another nurse, Vicki Gross. Summoned at home, Turner returned to the hospital. Just before midnight, Gross says she entered the room and saw the doctor cover Conor’s mouth and nose and allegedly heard him say, “I can’t stand to have this go on any longer.” Gross left to get a supervisor, then Boucher entered, saw what Turner was doing and said acidly, “Don’t let me stop you.” The doctor released the child momentarily, then blocked Conor’s airway for good with his hand. Says Boucher: “I ran out of the room, crying.”

Not until three days later, following an inconclusive autopsy and at the insistence of hospital officials, did Turner reveal to the McInnerneys that after they had said their goodbyes their son had apparently shown signs of life—though he maintained those were merely “reflexive activities” that sometimes occur postmortem. He also admitted covering Conor’s mouth and nose. Martin, who turns 23 this month and does light servicing for an equipment-rental business, says “something about the situation” bothered him. “Part of me felt like something was wrong,” he recalls. “The other part didn’t want to admit to it, because it’s just too horrible to think about.”

David Bruneau, prosecuting attorney for Clallam County, thought about it a great deal. On Aug. 31, after months of consultation with medical experts, he charged Turner with second-degree murder. At his arraignment, the doctor, whose trial is set to begin Jan. 25, adamantly professed his innocence. “I repeat, so that everyone can hear, Your Honor: Not guilty,” he declared before a packed courtroom. In an interview with a local paper, he framed his defense. “When the baby arrived at the hospital he was clearly dead,” Turner said. The McInnerneys aren’t buying it. “That second time was a miracle from God,” says Michelle, a waitress. “Conor was coming back to us.” (Weeks after Conor’s death, the state Medical Quality Assurance Commission restricted Turner from making decisions involving resuscitation.)

The impact of the case on Port Angeles, an old mill town where Turner is not merely trusted but revered for his folksy humanity and acts of charity, is difficult to exaggerate. “This guy was Marcus Welby magnified 10 times,” says John Brewer, editor and publisher of the local Peninsula Daily News. The town is now riven into pro-and anti-Turner camps. The doctor’s supporters have held car washes and bake sales to fund his defense. Many call the murder charge politically motivated, since Turner’s wife, Norma, ran the election campaign of prosecutor Bruneau’s opponent four years ago. Bruneau denies the allegations. “I’m doing my job,” he says. But not for long. He was turned out of office Nov. 3 by Democrat Chris Shea, backed by Turner’s camp. “I’ve heard this whispering campaign that I’m in Turner’s pocket,” says Shea, who has recused himself from the case. And the new special prosecutor may be appointed by next week.

The affair, of course, transcends small-town politics, raising thorny medical and ethical questions. Was Conor brain-dead when he got to the hospital, and if so, why did Turner spend so long trying to revive him? What moved him to cut off the child’s airway instead of letting nature take its course? After hours of resuscitation efforts, did he simply snap? The medical community has mixed feelings.

“There was probably a lot of pressure on him,” says Dr. Christopher Newth, emeritus director of pediatric critical care at Children’s Hospital at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “It’s unfortunate that a person’s career should be wrecked on something like this.” But Newth and others believe Turner must have misdiagnosed Conor. According to neurologist Christopher M. DeGiorgio of the USC School of Medicine, doctors usually wait a week or more before declaring a newborn braindead, because infants are more neurologically resilient than adults. Conor’s gasps, argues bioethicist Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, signaled that he was still alive, however faintly. “You cannot be gasping if you’re brain-dead,” says Caplan. “This doctor has big-time troubles.” Asserts DeGiorgio: “Any doctor who willingly and actively stops the breathing of even a severely disabled child should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” (Turner declined an interview with PEOPLE.)

But many Port Angelenos see Gene Turner as more than just a doctor. “He’s a man full of life, love and giving,” says pharmacist Jim Cammack, whose diabetic son has been treated by Turner for 24 years. Sherri Barclay, 26, a former Turner neighbor, says, “As a child, you walked in the door and the guy would hug you. He loves kids.”

A Seattle native, Turner graduated from the University of Washington Medical School in 1962, served in Vietnam as a Navy flight surgeon and did his residency at the Mayo Clinic. In 1968 he and Norma, a registered nurse, joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Ecuador before settling in Port Angeles, where they raised four children: Lee, 32, Suzanne, 30, Shelley, 27, and Andrew, 24. In 1970, Turner established the Peninsula Children’s Clinic, the first pediatric facility in the region, where he treats 3,000 patients a year. Known to invite down-on-their-luck townsfolk to pick vegetables from his garden, Turner also delivers firewood to people in need. His friend and Lutheran pastor Charles W. Mays says that Turner keeps his Spanish sharp to assist area migrant workers and has donated land to Habitat for Humanity for four homes for the poor. “This has all been like some Kafka novel to me,” says Mays. “Someone who has devoted his life to children, near the end of his career, being charged with second-degree murder of a child.”

But, says nurse Laurie Boucher, “sometimes good guys make bad decisions.” It was ER technician Dan Heassler, 48, who, after hearing hospital buzz about the incident, first reported it to police. “It just kind of hit me in the gut,” he says. His whistle-blowing got him suspended for violating a hospital order not to discuss the matter. His local tanning and video store, meanwhile, has gone out of business. “It’s torn this town apart,” he says of the case. “I don’t see any winners.” (In a bizarre related development, Dr. Bruce Rowan, who was the first ER doctor to work on Conor McInnerney—and thought the child was viable—killed his wife last March with an ax and a baseball bat. The cornerstone of Rowan’s successful insanity defense was that he was so haunted by Conor’s death that it had pushed him over the edge.)

No one is more anguished than the McInnerneys, who married after Michelle became pregnant with Conor and who have no other children. The couple have kept Conor’s stuffed bear that plays womblike sounds, bought to help him sleep at night, as well as his other stuffed animals, some of his clothes, his bassinet and his ashes. “Every day of my life I will think of my son and it will hurt,” says Michelle. “Whether I have three, four, five or six more kids, there’s still going to be an empty spot.”

Richard Jerome

Lyndon Stambler in Port Angeles and Meg Grant in Los Angeles

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