Scientology Crime Syndicate

A Times Editorial
Able medical examiner needed
St. Petersburg Times
June 23, 2000

Medical examiners are vital to the criminal justice system. They investigate suspicious deaths, help determine if crimes were committed and influence the outcome of trials. They should be competent medical professionals, managers and witnesses.

In each of those areas, serious questions have been raised about Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood. Before Gov. Jeb Bush decides whether to reappoint Wood to another three-year term, he should consider the consequences.

Wood was at the center of a controversial decision by State Attorney Bernie McCabe to drop charges against the Church of Scientology in the death of Lisa McPherson. Wood's behavior was amateurish throughout the case.

She first dramatized her importance by appearing on the TV show Inside Edition. Yet when medical professionals hired by Scientology expressed opposing views, Wood changed significant details on the autopsy, which forced prosecutors to drop the charges. A state attorney memo said Wood was unable "to coherently explain her decision even under benign questioning."

Doubts have arisen about her administrative ability, too. She assigned the McPherson autopsy to an assistant she distrusted, and he quit before the work was done. Now, the accuracy of dozens of autopsies done by another assistant, Richard O. Eicher, are being scrutinized.

While Wood later admitted that Eicher lacked training and experience in forensic pathology and that she was too busy to train him, she let him work on important cases. One of those, the death of 17-year-old Brannon Jones, has been changed from accident or suicide to suspected homicide. A shadow could fall on more of Eicher's work before the inquiry is completed.

Where does that leave Wood? She has a pattern of hiring inept assistants and not keeping a close eye on their work. The McPherson case suggests that her own professional skills have slipped, as well. And the outcome of current and future criminal cases could be at risk.

Yes, Wood has earned our gratitude for her long service. But too much is at stake to let sentimentality rule good judgment as the governor decides who can return professionalism and competence to the Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner's office.



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