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Wood says she should keep her job

The medical examiner's work on the Scientology case has her worried as she awaits a decision on reappointment.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


LARGO -- Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood acknowledges she is nervous. Within two weeks, Gov. Jeb Bush will decide if she should be reappointed. For Wood, the timing could not be worse.

Pinellas prosecutors say her "serious forensic error" ruined their criminal case against the Church of Scientology. On Monday, they dropped their case against Scientology and bluntly laid the blame on the veteran pathologist.

Now Wood waits at her Ulmerton Road office, anxious to win support and blocking any talk about stepping down from her job. In an interview Friday, she said, "I just hope to keep my job at this point.

"I think anybody in this position would be concerned. Normally, it's a pretty smooth road to reappointment. And now we have this glitch. Of course, that concerns me. I'll just have to wait to see how things turn out."

Wood, 55, said she deserved to be reappointed to another 3-year term to a post she has held since 1982. In fact, she said she has the unwavering support of local law enforcement, including State Attorney Bernie McCabe.

A spokeswoman for Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner James T. "Tim" Moore said Moore, whose support is pivotal for Wood to keep her job, wants Bush to reappoint her.

Moore was not available for an interview Friday, and McCabe declined comment. But Moore's spokeswoman, Jennifer McCord, said, "I know the commissioner supports the overall work of Dr. Wood."

The Medical Examiners Commission, which Wood chairs, has sent one name to Bush for consideration as the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner for the next three years -- Wood's.

But her name was forwarded to Bush, after the commission polled local law enforcement and others on her, long before the Scientology case was dropped. Bush is now accepting further comment on Wood before making a decision.

Wood said she has heard nothing from those in law enforcement either seeking her resignation or the appointment of an alternative.

But Wood said she has no intention of giving in to criticism and walking away from her job.

"I am not going to resign under any circumstances that I can imagine at this point in time," she said. "I love this job, and I intend to continue to do my work."

Wood defended her work on Scientology. "In 20-20 hindsight," she said, "anyone can make a lot of criticisms."

No public official has called for Wood's resignation or the appointment of a replacement. Bush's office did not return a call for comment late Friday. A spokesman for the office said two days ago Bush had not yet made a decision.

But Wood said finding a replacement for her might be problematic for local authorities. Experienced pathologists willing to take up the reins are always in short supply, she said.

And Wood said her $145,000 salary is low compared with other medical examiners around Florida and certainly lower than the salary of trained pathologists working for many hospitals.

The medical examiner in Hillsborough County earns about $206,000.

"I'm not telling you they wouldn't find anybody, they probably would," Wood said. "But I don't know how fast they would find somebody. There might not be someone in the state who is interested, so the process might be prolonged.

"We're just not being paid the kind of salary given the amount of pressure and accountability that has gone up with the job astronomically ... we're not paid commensurate with the demands placed on us," she said.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has been critical of Wood but has not called for her to step down, said, "I understand it's a tight market. But we're a pretty competitive environment.

"Pinellas County has a history of making sure there are qualified people to serve the taxpayers," he said, noting that Pinellas-Pasco also has the option of increasing the salary if Bush decides to replace Wood.

Wood changed her autopsy finding in the 1995 death of Scientology member Lisa McPherson, ruling her death accidental, leading McCabe's office to drop charges against Scientology of neglecting a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license.

Wood, who negotiates her own salary with the counties, would like to retire in another 10 years. If she loses her job, she is concerned about her employment future.

Forensic pathology is such a specialized field, Wood would have to be retrained for other work.

"It's not a matter of simply walking from one job to another," Wood said.

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