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.