Atlanta TV News “Investigation” of Georgia State Medical Examiner Completely Misses the Point

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

I’m going to have a piece at Reason later today that touches on this, but last week, the Fox affiliate in Atlanta ran a truly awful two-part “investigation” into Georgia state medical examiner Dr. Kris Sperry (see here and here).

Their big scoop? Sperry sometimes testifies for criminal defendants! Even in Mississippi!. In the second part of the report, a local official actually complains that the Georgia medical examiner testifying against the Tennessee medical examiner would be like “a cop testifying against another cop.” God forbid.

The truth is, for years Dr. Sperry has been trying to hold Steven Hayne and Mississippi’s corrupt autopsy system accountable. His efforts have included both writing letters to professional organizations asking for investigations of Hayne, as well as testifying against Hayne (and, in the case of this particular report, an equally corrupt medical examiner on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast) in court. He ought to be praised for his efforts. Instead, a clueless local news station runs a hit piece on him, and quotes without rebuttal some local officials in other states honked off because Sperry made it harder for them to win a conviction.

The Atlanta Fox report also uncritically pushes the idea that there’s something unseemly about a government medical examiner contradicting the testimony of another government medical examiner in another jurisdiction, reinforcing not only the idea that state forensic experts are part of the prosecution’s “team,” but that they should never testify for the defense under any circumstances.

If instead of merely quoting pissed off local officials, reporter Dale Russell had done some research, he’d have found that both of those notions are roundly dismissed by both the National Association of Medical Examiners and the new report on forensics in the courtroom published last month by the National Academy of Sciences. It’s one thing to say a state medical examiner’s freelance consulting is impairing his ability to do his job. It’s something else entirely to say that a state forensic expert should never testify for the defense out of principle.

Russell’s report does say that under Georgia law, there’s a clause in Sperry’s contract forbidding him from contradicting medical examiners in other jurisdictions. If so, that’s the problem, here. Peer review is an integral part of the scientific method. Here you have state agencies trying to take peer review out of forensic science, because it makes it more difficult to win convictions. That should have been Russell’s scoop.

Sadly, it looks like Sperry’s boss at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is taking this misinformed report fairly seriously. He tells Russell he plans to look into Sperry’s consulting business.

Last week, I emailed Russell with my complaints about his report. He hasn’t responded.

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17 Responses to “Atlanta TV News “Investigation” of Georgia State Medical Examiner Completely Misses the Point”

  1. #1 |  Bronwyn | 

    Did you cc his editor?

  2. #2 |  ktc2 | 

    Oh, it’s a FOX affiliate. Explains it all.

  3. #3 |  ChrisD | 

    Even he’d Tivo’d the right episode of CSI he’d hear Gil Grissom say it was just his job to fairly interpret the evidence.

  4. #4 |  Nick T | 

    Wow that is awful. The piece screams out for a response from Dr. Sperry and yet none is provided. It would also be interesting to note whether or not the clause in Sperry’s contract that prevents him from testifying for a defendant is constitutional. It probably is on its face but it might have an “as applied” problem if Sperry can offer evidence as to the non-guilt of a defendant and is a state employee, he can not be kept out of a court room because his contract says so. (Radley, if Mr. Russell ever gets back to you, please ask him if he is aware that the Contitution allows a defendant to call any witness in his defense that he chooses to even if it -gasp!- violates that witness’s employment contract.)

    Either way, that clause is obviously problematic and ridiculous, and that the reporter just accepts it as though it was a non-compete clause in a marketing exec’s contract is embarrassing for the entire station.

    The whole “oh but it was late March” line is so ridiculous too. Like it’s chilly and dry in fucking Biloxi in late March!? Sperry’s conclusions don’t hinge on the heat or humidity anyway, as he says “especially” given those conditions. Could it not have actually been 80 degrees out and rainy those few days that the body was there? If that’s the best they have for the mistakes Sperry made, I’m inclined to think that coroner probably did screw a few thiings up. Something I would like to hear Sperry explain.

    It’s just mind-blowing that they would have a piece which questions his character, integrity and professional competence and not even mention whether he was available for comment.

  5. #5 |  Nick T | 

    I guess the second piece indicates he declined to be interviewed. That’s dissappointing. Of course, that doesn’t change the problems with the overall report or the first piece. Little effort trying to find disagreement would be nice from a “journalist” especially considering so much is out there.

  6. #6 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I’m reading a white paper about the history of the Office of Public Defender in the U.S justice system. It goes back to the late 19th century with a woman named Clara Foltz. There was a time when objectivity was a central goal in the court system rather than just doing battle to get a conviction. In the end, of course, good intentions were not enough to guaranty the defendants justice and there were a number of incentives that tended to generate convictions regardless of the truth.

    In present times, however, even the pretense of an interest in the truth has been dispensed with when it comes to prosecutors. The question prosecutors ask themselves is not whether the guy did it, but only whether he can be convicted.

    I think there’s no doubt that medical examiners are on the side of the prosecution and one would be naive to think otherwise. You have government on one side and the defendant and his lawyer on the other. Not only does the government control all the evidence, they also make all the rules. The cards are so stacked in their favor that an acquittal usually means the defendant should probably never have been charged to begin with and a conviction no longer means the defendant did the crime.

    In most cases, the defendant has only one guy on his side: his lawyer. Everyone and everything else is arrayed against him.

    Aside from the rare exceptions, I think the only thing that keeps medical examiners (as well as cops and prosecutors) in line is the fear of ridicule (and job loss in extreme cases) if they get caught.

  7. #7 |  wunder | 

    I’m so happy to see this here! When I caught the teaser on TV last week, I gasped and just started to rant about “how dare they imply that the medical examiner is part of the prosecution’s team and he is only there to objectively testify about the evidence and …” My husband just stared at me while I went on and on.

    If I hadn’t been reading this site for so long, I would have probably bought it all, too. I didn’t watch it that night, but couple days later checked it out online, and it was even worse than the teaser. I particularly loved the comment Radley mentions about medical examiners testifying against others being like a cop testifying against another cop. You have to be kidding me!

    Why can’t we get investigative reports about the bad guys, instead of hit jobs commissioned by pissed off prosecutors?

  8. #8 |  MikeS | 

    It’s funny how a state medical examiner can be unlicensed, unscientific, corrupt as all get-out and willing to say whatever the prosecution wants — and the authorities have to be dragged kicking and screaming to investigate him; the media buries the story.

    But let one testify for the defense? Scandal!

  9. #9 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I don’t think much of local media. They are very careful not to antagonize local government because that could jeopardize the cooperative spirit where the government feeds them time-filler stories eliminating the cost of actually having to do any real investigative journalism in exchange for the media looking the other way when there is really something worth reporting.

  10. #10 |  freedomfan | 

    I agree with Dave Krueger that media (local and national) has a very “you rub my back…” attitude toward government officialdom. And, even aside from a reporter’s direct politics, this cozy relationship promotes a very pro-government view of the world. It’s lazy journalism to automatically start any story by calling up some local official or political figure and asking what he’s doing about it and it presupposes that any problem or issue is inherently a matter of government policy. But, without that easy reliance on a Rolodex of government officials, the journalist is forced to think about who else might have something to say about an issue, and that requires thinking about root causes and consequences. But, of course, that smacks of real work…

    The report also exhibits the theme that Sperry is okay when he’s working for the government and he’s suspect when he acts as a private consultant. I think this example goes even further to cement the idea that there are way too many reporters who think in terms of “the official side of the story” and “the wrong side of the story”. I guess I wasn’t really around then, but it seems like there was a time when a reporter would be proud to question conventional wisdom and expose the official side of the story as a sham. When I watched Stossel’s “Bailouts and Bull…” piece, I saw the sort of reporting we could use a lot more of.

  11. #11 |  Chance | 

    That’s some damn fine reporting there, Russell.

    Hahah, not.

    I agree with the comment above. Local news usually sucks with their so called “investigations”. I have commented in the past that I find it amazing that on stories like Cory Maye and Ryan Frederick, Mr. Balko can drive in as a stranger and find facts and viewpoints the local newspapers and stations couldn’t – or wouldn’t. They should feel ashamed that some out of town reporter (and a *gasp* blogger at that) can drive onto their turf and scoop them.

    On a different note, my Senator recently introduced a bill that will allow newspapers to become non-profits, with tax exempt status as long as they follow the non profit rules (no endorsment of political candidates for example). Any comments on that? Good, bad, indifferent?

  12. #12 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » My Piece on Forensics Experts Testifying for the Defense | 

    […] looks at the “investigative report” on Georgia’s Dr. Kris Sperry I blogged about earlier today. It also looks at a situation in Minnesota I first posted about several months ago. There, District […]

  13. #13 |  David | 

    I have commented in the past that I find it amazing that on stories like Cory Maye and Ryan Frederick, Mr. Balko can drive in as a stranger and find facts and viewpoints the local newspapers and stations couldn’t – or wouldn’t.

    Wouldn’t is the key phrase there, Chance. The sad for is that it’s unlikely that a local reporter would risk their police”access” to tell an a story that paint police in a negative light. A quick glance at the comments section of any article that does will find accusations of “liberal bias” and “betraying our brave men and women in blue” for daring to print that an accused person might be innocent or any other criticism of police procedure.

  14. #14 |  OneByTheCee | 

    #9 | Dave Krueger | March 25th, 2009 at 1:12 pm
    “… I don’t think much of local media. They are very careful not to antagonize local government because that could jeopardize the cooperative spirit where the government feeds them time-filler stories eliminating the cost of actually having to do any real investigative journalism in exchange for the media looking the other way when there is really something worth reporting.”

    I agree wholeheartedly! Thank you for articulating that so well.

  15. #15 |  POMDETERRE | 

    My first thought was that this was a hatchet job and that someone’s got an axe to grind, not some “investigative” reporting…but i’m a paranoid crotchy old man….

  16. #16 |  Forensic Science in the Service of the State | 

    […] A Path Forward (2009), expressing alarm at the way forensic science is used in the courtroom. Here’s more on the Georgia state medical examiner […]

  17. #17 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Follow-Up on Atlanta Fox Report About Georgia’s Medical Examiner | 

    […] I just had a long conversation with Atlanta TV reporter Dale Russell about his report on Georgia State Medical Examiner Kris Sperry. […]

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