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Former medical examiner Wood snubs subpoenas

A lawyer for a man accused of killing his infant daughter says her deposition is crucial.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2001


Former Pasco-Pinellas Medical Examiner Joan Wood is refusing to respond to subpoenas to give a deposition considered critical to the defense in a murder case.

Wood, who retired Sept. 30 after she was harshly criticized for her role in the collapse of the high-profile criminal case against the Church of Scientology, skipped a Nov. 1 deposition at which she was to testify about the suspicious death of a 7-month-old girl.

She was served with a subpoena on Sept. 28, but as the date for the deposition approached, Wood's associates said she was too ill to testify.

Defense attorneys for David Long, who is charged with shaking his infant daughter to death in New Port Richey in 1998, rescheduled the deposition for Jan. 8, but the lawyers said they were again frustrated when Wood wouldn't accept service on a subpoena delivered to her Pinellas home.

Attorney Mina Morgan said the former medical examiner is crucial to her client's defense because Wood, while still in office, wrote an e-mail mentioning that detectives didn't think they had a strong case against Long. Morgan said Long, 34, can get a fair trial only if she is allowed to question Wood to learn more about the detectives' doubts.

"It appears that one of the main pushes to prosecute David Long was from the Medical Examiner's Office," Morgan said Wednesday. "And for them to push for someone to be charged with first-degree murder and then not be available to testify, it's grossly unfair."

Wood did not return a message left at her Pinellas home on Wednesday.

Morgan said she plans to ask a judge to force Wood to cooperate if Wood can't provide a legitimate reason for why she is unable to testify.

Morgan also said she would file a motion asking Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge William Webb to authorize payment for a private investigator to find Wood and serve her with another subpoena.

Wood, 56, served as the circuit's chief medical examiner for 18 years, but the end of her career was tarnished by the case of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after 17 days in the care of church staffers.

Wood originally concluded that the 36-year-old McPherson died from a blood clot caused by "bed rest and severe dehydration." Wood's finding prompted prosecutors to file two felony charges against the Church of Scientology: abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

But last year, Wood changed her mind, concluding that McPherson's death was an accident. As a result, prosecutors dropped the charges against the church and, in a strongly worded memo, blamed Wood for botching the case.

"The actions and testimony of Dr. Wood, a forensic witness essential to the state's case, has so muddled the equities and underlying facts in this case, however, that it has undermined what began as a strong legal position," the memo said.

In June, Wood abruptly announced her resignation, saying in a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush that "the stress and physical toll have become more than I can handle."

Local defense attorneys predicted at the time that if Wood ever testified again, she would be attacked for her work in the McPherson case.

The day before Wood was scheduled to give the Nov. 1 deposition in the Long case, Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis called defense attorneys and said Wood "was too ill to communicate," according to Morgan.

Halkitis, who is prosecuting Long, on Wednesday declined to describe Wood's condition and said he hasn't been in contact with her for several months.

"If (defense attorneys) served her (with a subpoena), then it's between them and her," Halkitis said. "It's in their ballpark."

Larry Bedore, chief of operations for the Medical Examiner's Office, also would not comment on Wood's condition or what she has been doing since she retired.

"Those are things we're not at liberty to discuss," Bedore said.

Morgan said she is sympathetic to Wood's condition but added that she has reason to be skeptical.

Morgan said she once called Wood's house and was told she was out of town. She said she left several messages at Wood's house, and none has been returned.

"She won't return my calls," Morgan said.

Wood is crucial to Long's case, Morgan said, because she wrote an e-mail to another pathologist in which she described tensions between prosecutors and detectives with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

"(Prosecutors) are fighting the police who have, for some reason, decided that we are wrong and that the family did nothing wrong," Wood wrote in the June 11, 1999 e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

"She is an essential witness for the defense," Morgan said.

Long, who has no prior criminal record, is charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors said the death of his daughter, Rebecca Long, was the result of shaken baby syndrome, and that her father was the only person who could have caused the fatal injuries.

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