Ex-medical examiner unable to testify
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
GAINESVILLE -- Dr. Joan Wood virtually disappeared after she was forced into retirement as Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner in late 2000.
She dodged subpoenas to testify in murder cases about autopsies. She didn't answer her phone or knocks on her front door. To this day, defense attorneys can't locate her.
Defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg of St. Petersburg said he has never had so much difficulty finding a witness. "Not one who is still alive," he said.
But on Thursday, Wood appeared for the second straight day at a conference of state medical examiners in Gainesville. The appearance comes even as she still insists to prosecutors she is unable to testify in a handful of ongoing cases because of health problems caused by 25 years of job stress.
Wood, 58, plans to launch a pathology consulting business by the end of next month.
In her first interview since her departure, Wood discussed years of overwhelming job stress that still keeps her out of court.
That included the stress of one of her last high-profile cases, her reversal on the cause of death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after 17 days in church custody. McPherson's death became a focus for critics of the church.
Wood ruled McPherson died of complications from dehydration. But in 2000, she ruled the death accidental, and charges of abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license were dropped. Wood said Thursday that her decision was based on facts, not pressure from anyone.
"Scientology didn't get to me," she said flatly.
During a break in the conference, Wood smoked her trademark filtered cigarettes in 90-degree heat, saying she feels more relaxed than ever.
Still, "I have some bad stress that I'm not yet able to cope with," Wood said during a 40-minute interview. "I have panic attacks whenever I go into a courtroom. It's something I can't face yet."
Wood blames her stress on all the violence, death and weighty decisionmaking of 25 years on the job.
"I don't want to make a mistake, call something a homicide when it's not," she said. "You don't want to mistakenly send someone to prison."
In the Lisa McPherson case, the church "hounded" her office during the criminal case with unending paperwork requests and subpoenas, she said.
After the reversal, she felt the heat from the other side. Prosecutor Doug Crow warned Wood that he was releasing a report critical of her decision. Wood said she asked Crow if she and prosecutors could "still be friends."
"He told me, "I don't know if that's possible,' " Wood said. "Their reaction shocked me."
Now that Wood appears to be out and working again, she may face legal complications in the courtrooms she said she now dreads.
Prosecutors say Wood told them shortly after leaving office that she could not testify because of stress. Other doctors working with the Medical Examiner's Office, reviewing her notes, have testified for her at trials on autopsies she conducted.
But some local lawyers, told of Wood's activities in Gainesville and new business venture, say they might try to compel her testimony.
"Legally, she has to be unavailable" to be spared from testifying, said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "Well, it doesn't look like she's unavailable anymore."
Attorneys in a Pasco case worked for months to find Wood, whose office declared that the death of a 7-month-old girl was caused by a violent shaking. The girl's father was charged with first-degree murder.
A deputy appeared at Wood's home eight times but could not get Wood to accept a subpoena.
Later, the new medical examiner reversed Wood and said the girl's death was an accident. The murder charge was dropped this year.
Today, Wood said she is incapable of dealing with that case, or any other, because of stress.
But she still insisted, "That child was murdered."
Though Wood acknowledges her consulting work will lead her back to the witness chair, she hopes to delay the inevitable long enough to allow her to overcome her fear: "Any testimony for my business would be a ways down the road."
The job stress, she said, built up over the years. The stress was compounded by a bad back that developed in a career with more than 5,600 autopsies.
Wood said she lost sleep, rarely going out. About 15 years ago, she considered leaving forensic pathology for a residency and career in psychiatry, she said.
"I wish now I had," she said.
Wood said retirement bored her and she wants to get back to work even if it means stress.
Wood said she was overjoyed to come to the conference and not sit among active medical examiners, who catch flak for tough decisions.
"All I could do was think how glad I was. I was so happy."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire