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Coroners vs. Medical Examiners

The Associated Press recently reported that Dr. Cyril Wecht, who it described as “perhaps the nation?s most prominent coroner, having consulted on cases ranging from the Kennedy assassinations to Elvis?s death,” is the target of a petition drive. Jim Roddey, the chief executive of Allegheny County, which embraces Pittsburgh, wants to follow in the footsteps of a number of other large cities and replace its elected coroner, Dr. Wecht, with an appointed medical examiner.

Roddey was quoted as saying, “If you look around the country, most large cities are now using a medical examiner, and for a very good reason, in order to ensure they have the most qualified individual.” He said that he would appoint Wecht, a Democrat, to the post, but he added that “Cyril won?t always be there.” One of Roddey?s supporters is quoted as saying, “There is no Republican or Democratic way of performing an autopsy.”

That is true, but coroners and medical examiners often have to decide if a death is a homicide, a suicide or the result of natural causes. Homicides are sometimes committed or paid for by people of influence. They have been known to bring pressure to bear to get the police or the medical examiner to say a murder was a suicide. In 1995, Alan Mabry, a Houston police officer who had exposed corruption in the handling of police pension funds, was found shot to death in Fort Bend County. The sheriff said it was a suicide, but Mabry had been shot in the back of his head, and a state toxicologist testified that a grossly excessive amount of gunshot residue had been smeared on his hand. The verdict of the coroner?s jury was homicide.

The most notorious example of a medical examiner falsifying autopsy evidence and other medical examiners refusing to expose his obstruction of justice is seen in the case of former White House Deputy Counsel Vincent W. Foster, Jr. The investigation of Foster?s death was entrusted to the U.S. Park Police. It should have been handled by the FBI, but the White House was not sure it could control the FBI, whose director Clinton had just fired. It demonstrated its ability to control the Park Police by ordering them to return Foster?s White House pager before they could check to see if it held any messages that might have been clues to where, when and how he died.

The White House also demanded that the autopsy be done the next day, making it impossible for Sgt. John Rolla, the officer who had examined the body at the crime scene, to attend. It was performed by Dr. James C. Beyer, chief medical examiner for Northern Virginia. He claimed he found a large exit wound in the back of the skull, three inches below the top of the head. Sgt. Rolla had gone over that area with his fingers, trying to find a wound, but all he had found was a soft spot. He concluded that the bullet was still inside the skull.

Dr. Beyer?s autopsy report said the entrance wound was in the back of Foster?s throat, 7-1/2 inches below the top of his head. A .38 high-velocity bullet fired into the back of the throat could not possibly exit from the skull, 4-1/2 inches above where it entered. Eight months later, four medical examiners, including Beyer?s boss and his assistant, reviewed his autopsy report and decided that the entrance wound had to be relocated to the soft palate. They made the change without the benefit of x-rays that would have shown the trajectory of the bullet. Their report said there were no x-rays because the machine was inoperable.

Although Beyer?s report said x-rays were taken, and he had said that they showed no bullet fragments in the skull, his colleagues accepted his claim that the machine wasn?t working. The service records show that there was no call for service until three months after the autopsy, proof that Beyer was lying. They did not demand to see them. The x-rays had to vanish because there was a bullet trapped in the skull. It lacked the power to break out. The .38 revolver found in Foster?s hand was a plant, put there to persuade the police that he had killed himself. Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the medical examiner hired by Kenneth Starr, was shocked to learn that Beyer had lied to him about the x-rays, but like his colleagues, he has done nothing to expose his old friend?s dishonesty. Dr. Wecht, who has both skill and integrity, is not afraid to do that.