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Pinellas-Pasco Medical examiner retires

Joan Wood tells the governor that "the stress and physical toll have become more than I can handle."

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000


LARGO -- A defiant Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood vowed never to voluntarily step down from her beloved life's work. But on Wednesday, she decided enough was enough.

Wood unexpectedly announced her retirement, effective Sept. 30, after nearly 20 years as the circuit's medical examiner. The announcement comes just two days before Gov. Jeb Bush was to decide whether to reappoint her to another term.

And it comes two weeks after Pinellas prosecutors dropped criminal charges against the Church of Scientology, blaming Wood's reversal in the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson for hopelessly damaging their case.

Inevitably, prosecutors' decision and condemnation of Wood's "illogical" behavior in the case may have doomed her career.

"Frankly, the stress and physical toll have become more than I can handle," Wood told Bush in a short letter she faxed to his office just after 2 p.m. "My personal considerations include not only my health, but that of my family."

In the letter, Wood, 55, said her experiences as medical examiner were generally good ones.

"But those experiences are not without extremely significant personal sacrifices which I no longer wish to make," she wrote. "The time has come for me to move on to other opportunities."

Wood, who earns $145,000 annually, could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Diane Bailey, said, "I'm sure she's not going to talk now. It's probably the worst day of her life."

Bush's office did not say whether the governor planned to reappoint Wood. Letters sent to Bush's office mostly favored reappointing her.

Bush thanked Wood for her service and wrote back, "I am aware of ... and appreciate the sacrifices you have made on behalf of the people of Florida."

Shortly before her announcement, Wood called State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who refused to say what the two discussed.

"She has had a very distinguished career, and I wish her well in future endeavors," McCabe said, declining to discuss whether he wanted Wood to leave the post. "I understand why she resigned. I'll leave it at that. What's done is done."

McCabe said the governor's office called him in recent days seeking input on Wood's reappoint. But he would not say what he told them.

Some criminal defense lawyers speculated that it was McCabe who had the most at stake if Bush decided to reappoint Wood to another three-year term beginning July 1.

Public Defender Bob Dillinger said his office, and private defense attorneys, would have attacked Wood's credibility and record in the Scientology case every time she testified in any other case.

"She did the right thing," he said. "I can see from law enforcement's point of view, they need someone they can consult with and rely on for results. If she had stayed, it would have been a testy situation.

"We need to go forward and get another medical examiner and quickly restore public confidence in that office."

Though Wood's term officially ends Friday, McCabe said the governor has the latitude to allow her to stay longer until a successor is found.

The Florida Medical Examiner's Commission will soon set up a local search committee to screen applicants for a replacement and then make a recommendation to Bush, who said he intends to appoint a replacement before Wood departs.

In an interview earlier this month, Wood speculated that it would be difficult to recruit a qualified replacement because of a shortage of trained pathologists and a salary she said is low compared to other jurisdictions.

But Dillinger said, "Pinellas County has the money to pay for the quality that we need to have in that office. It's a great place to work, we're close to good research hospitals. I can't imagine we'll have trouble finding her replacement."

The Medical Examiner Commission had already recommended that Wood be reappointed to the post she has held since 1982. But its decision came before prosecutors dropped the Scientology case.

In a June 16 interview, Wood insisted nobody asked her to leave office.

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

Clearwater defense lawyer Denis de Vlaming said he doesn't agree that Wood's Scientology reversal would have damaged her credibility irretrievably.

"I'm surprised she resigned," he said. "I did not look at Joan as an Achilles' heel for McCabe. Would her work in Scientology hurt her in other cases? Yes. But like all things, over time there is a way to explain these things and minimize them.

"Joan has been around so long, I would have thought she would have fought until the bitter end. She's a consummate professional."

In her original ruling in 1996, Wood traced the death of McPherson, the Scientologist, to a blood clot in McPherson's left lung that originated in a clot behind her left knee. Wood blamed it on "bed rest and severe dehydration."

Initially calling the death "undetermined," Wood later changed her mind, saying the death was "accidental."

Prosecutors charged the church with neglecting a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license before dropping the case earlier this month.

Wood, a lifelong Pinellas resident and graduate of the University of South Florida Medical School, began working as an associate medical examiner in 1975. Seven years later, she took the helm after the resignation of Medical Examiner John Shinner.

At the time, Wood said, "I feel like I would be running away from it if I didn't at least apply for the job. The challenge is there and I want it."

After a reporter read Wood's letter announcing her retirement to de Vlaming, he said, "AKA, I've had enough. Isn't that what she's saying?

"Whenever you have a job like that, you're just continually under the microscope and being scrutinized. It just gets to the point where you throw up your hands and say, "Give it to the younger ones.' "

Times staff writers Shelby Oppel and Jane Meinhardt contributed to this report.

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