Coroner guilty in lethal overdose
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2001
PENSACOLA- A jury found a former medical examiner guilty Friday of murdering his wife with a lethal injection of a paralyzing drug nearly 10 years ago.
Dr. William Sybers looked down as the jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the death of his first wife, Kay. Sybers' present wife, Judy, broke into tears.
Kay Sybers' sister, Karen Lee, hugged William Sybers' daughter, Jennifer. Both supported Sybers.
Circuit Judge Don T. Sirmons called a recess because of the outburst of emotion. The jury was sent out and Sybers was taken away in handcuffs. When order was restored, the jury and Sybers returned.
Sirmons said the jury would hear testimony on the penalty -- death or life in prison -- on Wednesday. Sentencing will be up to the judge, but he must give weight to the jury's recommendation.
"We're obviously disappointed, but that's the way it goes," said defense lawyer John Daniel. "We've got to start getting ready for the penalty phase now, working on that and seeing if we can save what's left of this man's life."
In closing arguments, State Attorney Harry Shorstein alleged Sybers killed his wife on May 30, 1991, so he could marry his mistress, which he did in 1994, and avoid losing at least half of $6-million in joint assets through a divorce.
Shorstein, a governor-appointed special prosecutor from Jacksonville, has worked on the case for more than five years after taking over from another special prosecutor.
"It's been an extremely difficult case and at times a very unpleasant experience," Shorstein said. He said he would withhold further comment until after the penalty phase.
The seven-woman, five-man jury returned a verdict after deliberating for four hours.
Daniel argued that the case was riddled with reasonable doubt because of conflicting evidence from laboratory testing, Kay Sybers' health and other facts.
"There's conflict after conflict after conflict," Daniel told the jury. "I'm asking you to see if there's a reasonable doubt. All it takes is one."
Sybers, 68, who retired to Canada, was a district medical examiner and had a private pathology practice when his 52-year-old wife died at their Panama City Beach home.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement began investigating the next day after a tip from a former colleague that Sybers had ordered no autopsy.
Sybers, who did not testify during the three-week trial, told investigators he was abiding by his wife's wishes but subsequently agreed to an autopsy. By then, the body had been embalmed and the autopsy failed to detect a cause of death.
That changed in late 1999 when Dr. Kevin Ballard, director of research and analytic toxicology at National Medical Service, a Willow Grove, Pa., laboratory devised a new way to find evidence of succinylcholine, a drug used to paralyze patients during surgery, in embalmed tissue.
Ballard testified he used mass spectrometry equipment to detect succinylmonocholine derived from the drug when it degrades. The FBI's laboratory used Ballard's method to confirm the drug was present in tissue retained before the body was shipped to Fort Dodge, Iowa, for burial.
Ballard also used his method to detect the compound in tissue from one victim of Dr. Michael Swango, a former physician who pleaded guilty last year to killing three patients at a veterans hospital in Northport, N.Y., and a fourth at Ohio State University's hospital. Swango received life sentences in both cases.
Defense witnesses criticized the Pennsylvania laboratory's procedures and suggested the tissue samples may have been contaminated. Medical examiners from Daytona Beach and Mobile, Ala., testified Kay Sybers died naturally from cardiac arrhythmia caused by a severe asthma attack.
The autopsy did disclose two needle marks on her arm. Sybers told investigators his wife was having chest pains and he tried to draw blood for analysis but botched the job.
The syringe would have been conclusive proof of whether the drug had been injected, but it was never found, Shorstein said. Sybers said he threw it in a nearby trash bin that was emptied before investigators checked it the next day.
© 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