tampabay.com

Without explaining, he resigns

By JOHN FRANK
Published March 20, 2007


At 4 p.m. Thursday, jurors in the John Couey trial began deliberating their eventual death sentence recommendation for the murder of Jessica Lunsford.

An hour earlier, one of the prosecution's top witnesses, Dr. Steven Cogswell, resigned from his post as the 5th Circuit medical examiner.

Cogswell issued a terse statement that provided no explanation: "This letter is to inform you that I am resigning as the Medical Examiner for District Five effective immediately," he wrote. "Thank you for the opportunity to have served in this capacity."

Officials say the two events are not linked, but the timing and vague statement created questions and surprised even those closest to Cogswell.

"I don't think it has any connection with the Lunsford case," said Brad King, the 5th Circuit state attorney.

King spent days in Miami with Cogswell in preparation for his testimony. But even he didn't find out about the resignation until after the fact.

Same for Dr. Stephen Nelson, the chairman of the state's Medical Examiners Commission. "I think it surprised everybody," said Nelson, who is based in Polk County.

Cogswell, 47, could not be reached for comment Monday.

In July, Cogswell was reappointed to another three-year term as the medical examiner for Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties. His salary was $187,200 a year, records show.

He joined the office as an associate in 2002 before being named interim director in July 2003 when then-medical examiner Dr. Valerie Rao was dismissed under accusations of misconduct.

Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Cogswell officially to the post in July 2004.

Nelson said he received "good reviews" from the State Attorney's Office, the Public Defender's Office, law enforcement agencies and others.

"I thought he did an outstanding job with his testimony in Couey," Nelson said.

Cogswell, a bald man with a full beard and glasses, testified at two key points during the trial.

In the guilt phase, he delivered powerful testimony about five photos taken of Jessica after she was unearthed from the shallow grave outside Couey's residence. Jurors said after the trial that the gruesome images played a major role in their deliberations.

He also told jurors about how Jessica died of suffocation and poked holes in the two bags with her fingers. Defense attorneys questioned his determination about how Jessica died, and Cogswell acknowledged that she could have died before being put in the ground.

The next week, Cogswell took the stand in the sentencing phase as the prosecution's final witness. He gave jurors an idea of how long it took Jessica to die, if she was alive, when she was buried. He pegged the time at 1 1/2 minutes to 5 minutes.

His medical credentials helped support his testimony.

Cogswell is licensed to practice medicine in three states. He received his medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina in 1985, then served eight years in active duty for the Air Force. He began his career in forensic pathology with a fellowship at the Miami medical examiner's office. In his 20-year career, he estimates that he's completed 6,000 to 8,000 autopsies.

The process of naming a replacement could take months as officials launch a local and national search. King will serve as chairman of the search committee and Nelson will fill in as the interim director.

The committee will nominate one or more candidates to the Medical Examiners Commission, which will then forward a recommendation to Gov. Charlie Crist, who will make the final appointment.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 860-7312.