Was JFK really killed by a lone assassin? Did the Casey Anthony jury pay proper attention to the forensic report? A top medical examiner says American pathologists sometimes miss—or ignore?crucial evidence.
Dr. Cyril Wecht consulted on some of the most famous deaths of the last century—John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Michael Jackson, to name a few. At a time when most of his peers have retired, the 80-year-old medical examiner for Pennsylvania's Alleghany County performs hundreds of autopsies a year, many for families across the country who come to him to take a second—and sometimes first—look at loved ones whose deaths they believe have been misclassified.
His new book, “From Crime Scene to Courtroom: Examining the Mysteries Behind Famous Cases,” is co-authored by crime journalist Dawna Kaufman, and takes readers inside some of the most mysterious deaths of our time, including Casey Anthony's daughter, Caylee, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and Illinois police officer Drew Peterson's third wife.
With the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination approaching, Dr. Wecht talks to The Crime Report about the lone gunman theory, why Casey Anthony got “the jury for hell,” and how autopsies—on celebrities and civilians alike—are botched all over the country, every day.
The Crime Report: One of the things that was most surprising – and frightening – about your book, was the vast disparities in the quality of autopsies you write about. Are sloppy autopsies common?
Dr. Cyril Wecht: There is no question that discrepancies in terms of the thoroughness and completeness of post-mortem examination are an age-old problem. You don't have [this issue] in other fields of medicine because there are boards that require people to become certified, and hospitals that will not take somebody on unless they have the proper qualification. That's not the case in pathology.
I can tell you as a private pathologist doing autopsies—sometimes second autopsies—that some things are often missed (or) not done properly. I'm involved in a case right now of a young woman found hanging in California. Completely nude, hands bound behind her back, legs bound, a T-shirt wrapped around the neck three times, stuffed into her mouth, bruises on the underside of her scalp. And they signed it out as a suicide. It was a rush to judgment. I don't know why they did it.
TCR: Some jurisdictions have medical examiners and some have coroners. What is the difference between the two systems? Is one better than the other?
CW: Coroners are elected officials, and in only a few states do they have to be medical doctors. Medical examiners (MEs) today are required to be board-certified or board-eligible, mostly as forensic pathologists. They are appointed. About half the jurisdictions are medical examiner systems now. MEs pride themselves on being independent, but that's a bit of an overstatement. If you are appointed by somebody, you can't be truly independent.
I don't believe that the coroner system is necessarily bad and the ME system is necessarily good. The problem is that too many coroners' offices are trying to save money, thinking that people in the community don't like autopsies. They don't want to lose any votes, so they finesse cases that should have autopsies done.
On the other hand, if the coroner handles the case properly, if he calls upon a forensic pathologist to do the autopsy, and toxicological screening is done by a good laboratory, and if he is working with homicide detectives—who is to say that because an ME is a forensic pathologist, he'll do a better job? You can run a darn good office without being a doctor.
TCR: So it's not just about how the autopsy is done, sometimes what matters is whether an official autopsy gets done at all.
CW: Yes, I could give you example after example of ME offices where cases have been botched. A classic example was in Massachusetts in 1969 when the deputy medical examiner, with an MD degree, made a decision not to have an autopsy done on the body of a young woman found in a submerged car: Mary Jo Kopechne, who was riding in a car with [the late Massachussetts] Senator Edward Kennedy.
TCR: Does politics often enter into the decision of whether, and how, to do an autopsy?
CW: Yes. A perfect example is the autopsy done on President John F. Kennedy. I was the first non-government forensic pathologist to be given access to the autopsy materials in 1972. The autopsy on the president was [performed] by two pathologists who had never done a medical-legal autopsy, had never done a gunshot wound case. It was a difficult case for the most experienced, competent forensic pathologist. You had to determine entrance and exit trajectories, distance, angles, correlation of Kennedy's wounds to Texas Governor John Connelly's wounds, sequence of events, and then correlation of murder weapon. And for this autopsy, on our President, they called in two guys from the naval hospital in Bethesda. It's a classic example of a case that was manipulated.
In contrast, the autopsy on Sen. Robert Kennedy [felled by an assassin's bullet in 1968], was performed by an outstanding forensic pathologist, who was at that time chief medical examiner of Los Angeles County. It was detailed and thorough.
TCR: So you don't believe Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman?
CW: Lee Harvey Oswald was not the sole assassin. The sole assassin theory is predicated on the magic bullet, a bullet they claim produced seven wounds in two men, then emerged near pristine after having broken two bones, with no deformity and a total weight loss of only one-and-a-half percent, and leaving pieces of itself in four anatomic locations in these two men.
TCR: Is lack of funding a reason some autopsies aren't performed, or aren't performed properly?
CW: Funding really is not a problem; we're not talking about huge amounts of money. It may cost a few more dollars to do all the tests, but you actually save money down the road. Why? Because if you accurately determine the cause and manner of death then you avoid all kinds of unnecessary legal actions. If it's a homicide and you prove it, a guy is going plead out. If it's a malpractice case, then it's going to be settled. That's where the money really is spent: on courts—on judges and attorneys and juries and investigating officers. What you save on cases by having good medical-legal investigation far exceeds any amount of additional expense that might be involved in performing more autopsies and more toxicology tests.
TCR: You begin your book by writing about the Casey Anthony case. In fact, you met Anthony's attorney, Jose Baez, on several occasions before the trial. Were you surprised at the verdict?
CW: In my opinion, the Casey Anthony case is a moral and ethical abomination. One could argue that the prosecution could have done a better job. However, this was, as they say, a 'jury from hell.' After six weeks of testimony of highly complicated forensic areas, how could they possibly have digested, analyzed and discussed those matters in six hours of deliberations?
Editor's Note: For other opinions from The Crime Report writers on the Casey Anthony trial, please see HERE.
Julia Dahl is acting managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.