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McPherson case expected to haunt medical examiner

The blow to her credibility could make it difficult for Joan Wood to do her job, lawyers say.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000


Although prosecutors said her "serious forensic error" ruined their case against the Church of Scientology, Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood said Monday she has no plans to resign.

But veteran lawyers predicted the case -- and particularly the 31-page memo from prosecutors that blasted Wood as "illogical" and "inconsistent" -- will dog her every time she takes the witness stand.

That could make it difficult for her to continue in the job she has held since 1982, they said.

"I would think her credibility is going to be severely tested every time she testifies, and I wonder if that's in the best interest of the taxpayers," Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said.

In the memo explaining why prosecutors are dropping the charges against Scientology in connection with Lisa McPherson's death, Assistant State Attorney Doug Crow wrote that "because of Wood's admission of a serious forensic error" her testimony would create enough reasonable doubt for a jury to acquit the church.

Wood, in a brief interview, refused to respond in detail to Crow's memo. She said Crow "hit a bunch of people in there" other than her.

However, Wood is the only person criticized so sharply. Crow named only one other person as a liability to the prosecution's case: one of Wood's former assistants, who according to Crow performed the autopsy on McPherson shortly before Wood forced him out of his job because of his mental problems, alcohol abuse and an arrest for trespassing.

In a statement she gave prosecutors last week, Wood said that throughout the McPherson case she was under so much pressure "I have not been sure on a day-to-day basis what my future is going to be."

But on Monday, Wood would not comment on whether the dismissal of the case might affect her credibility in future criminal cases or her ability to continue in her job.

"This is a unique case," Wood said. "That's not a question I can answer for you. You should ask an attorney."

Several Pinellas criminal defense attorneys predicted the McPherson case will haunt her.

"I'm sure this is going to damage her credibility," said longtime defense attorney Joe McDermott. Having the case fall apart is one thing, he said, but Crow's memo makes it far worse for her: "That's got to hurt."

Defense attorney Denis de Vlaming, a former prosecutor, said the McPherson case "could very well be used for impeachment" of Wood's expertise in other cases. "This will follow her from now on."

It has already begun. During a child-abuse murder case last month Assistant Public Defender Violet Assaid cross-examined Wood about her change-of-heart on the McPherson case. Assaid also brought up an error Wood made in a 1994 child-abuse murder that forced prosecutors to downgrade a first-degree murder charge to second-degree murder.

But the judge ruled that those matters were not sufficiently germane to the case at hand and did not allow the jury to hear that testimony. Assaid's client was convicted of first-degree murder.

Dillinger and other lawyers said they have had other problems with Wood, who was recently reappointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to another term in office.

"I've b------ about her for years," said Robert Paver, who handled some of Pinellas County's most sensational murder cases before switching to corporate law. "She's a nice person, but she's not as competent as people think."

They cited a litany of problems, ranging from inaccurate testimony about fingernail scrapings and the age of bruises to lengthy delays in obtaining autopsy reports. Dillinger said Wood's office is at least partly to blame for the 1997 arrest of Dale Morris Jr. on charges he brutally murdered a 9-year-old Dade City girl -- charges later dropped because of DNA evidence.

"From the defense point of view we want accurate, timely, reliable information, and I'm not sure we're getting any of that," Dillinger said.

Two months ago Wood announced she was reviewing about 150 autopsies performed by another assistant who was forced to resign because of his questionable work. The assistant's former employer said Wood never contacted him for a background check before hiring the man.

Defense attorneys have long grumbled that, rather than being a neutral source of information, Wood often took the prosecution's side in her work. De Vlaming, the former prosecutor, said he had never heard of anything like Crow's memo in 28 years of practicing law and pointed out, "This is with someone the state has to work closely with, not just some flash-in-the pan lay witness."

Records released Monday show Wood angered State Attorney Bernie McCabe long before she reversed her finding on the cause of death with another action he disapproved of: appearing on the tabloid television show Inside Edition to discuss the McPherson case.

In her statement last week, Wood told Crow she "no longer felt the sense of camaraderie" she once shared with McCabe and his assistants. "I just feel like my position is different. It's different with you; it's different with Bernie."

Defense attorney Jay Hebert noted that to convince Wood to change her mind and undermine the prosecution's case, Scientology spent thousands of dollars hiring high-profile experts.

"It's unfortunate that the average defendant in the average criminal case doesn't have the wherewithal and resources to put Joan Wood and her staff under the microscope like that," he said.

- Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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