Follow-Up on Atlanta Fox Report About Georgia’s Medical Examiner

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

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

Russell contends that the gist of his report was that Sperry has been violating the terms of his contract with the state, which stipulate that he can’t ever contradict a local medical examiner while freelancing in other cases. He says the fact that Sperry signed the contract, then violated it, calls into question his credibility as an expert witness. Russell says he doesn’t necessarily disagree with me that the clause itself is a problem, or that medical examiners should be actually be encouraged to testify for the defense when appropriate, but that that wasn’t the focus of his story. Sperry violating the terms of his contract was the focus.

We both then civilly articulated our positions to one another, but I don’t think either of us walked away convinced. The story did mention Sperry’s contract several times. But I still think the overriding message you walk away with after viewing it is that there’s something inherently wrong with a state medical examiner contradicting another state medical examiner in a criminal case—a position repudiated by every major medical and forensic science organization. The statements from local officials in Mississippi and Tennessee to that effect went unchallenged (Russell says he had a difficult time finding a medical examiner who would repudiate those positions on camera).

I guess my other complaint is that Sperry’s violation of a clause in his contract seems like a relatively minor story when compared the transgressions of the medical examiners he violated his contract to testify against over the last 20 years (mainly Hayne, but there are others). I don’t know all of the facts of the two cases mentioned in the report. The way they were reported make it seem like Sperry’s opinions were a little out there. But who knows. I do know that I haven’t heard a bad word about Sperry from the doctors I’ve talked to over the last few years, both at the National Association of Medical Examiners and across the south.

I get the impression that there has long been a sort of casual acceptance at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that this was going on. That is, the clause may have always been there, but it was never really enforced. The real problem is that the state insists on including such clause in the first place.

In any case, I wanted to note that Russell called to emphasize that the intent of his story was to focus on Sperry’s contract violations, not the broader issues about medical examiners testifying for the defense.

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11 Responses to “Follow-Up on Atlanta Fox Report About Georgia’s Medical Examiner”

  1. #1 |  Hunter | 

    Well then he sucks at reporting, because I don’t anyone took his intended message away as the primary thrust of the story. It’s pretty plainly obvious that he wanted to get people mad at the thought of a medical examiner contradicting the state’s prosecution.

    So which is it? Does he suck at reporting, or is he a shill for shady law enforcement? I wouldn’t want to be known for either.

  2. #2 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Just in case he reads this, he sucks at reporting.

    Stop reporting on the new deck chair arrangement while the Titanic is sinking.

    If he says he was editorializing, then why would he not mention the huge story that we have huge parts of the state’s legal system NOT pursuing justice?

  3. #3 |  JP | 

    “It’s in the contract.” is the biggest red herring ever. Minor clauses of contracts are violated and/or litigated constantly, especially when the portion of the contract in question as odious as this one. If the state tried to, say, terminate him based on his violation of the clause, there’s not even any guarantee he wouldn’t be able to win out in court. Basically, if what Russell says is true, he still wrote a Dog Bites Man story.

  4. #4 |  John Jenkins | 

    Have they reported the contents of that contract? Saying that he violated it without giving us the contract to read is plain bad reporting.

  5. #5 |  Highway | 

    Why isn’t the story about a stupid clause in the guy’s contract.

    “The pursuit of justice should be the highest goal. So why is there a clause in the Georgia State Medical Examiner’s contract that says he can never contradict another local medical examiner as a consultant? That leads this reporter to think that the goal of the clause is to protect the bad prosecutions of other jurisdictions. Is that the kind of ‘justice’ we can afford in this country?”

  6. #6 |  Mike T | 

    And if the man were a decent remember who did the whole “watchdog thing,” his report would have been titled “Brave medical examiner takes personal risks to ensure justice.” Once again, the mainstream media proves that it is nothing more than a guard dog for the government.

  7. #7 |  Jaime | 

    In Georgia contract law there is a concept called ‘mutual departure’ which more or less says that if both parties to a contract fail to enforce specific parts of a contract for an extended period of time, then it eventually becomes unenforceable (ie they ‘mutually departed’ from the contract’s terms).

    If the GBI and Sperry have both been ignoring this clause for years, the GBI will have a hard time trying to come in and enforce it now. Perhaps Russell shoulda/coulda checked with a few local contract attorneys to learn this before he reported on what appears to be a defunct part of an employment contract.

  8. #8 |  POMDETERRE | 

    This development just reinforces my belieft that the report is doing a hatchet job…OR he’s just an idiot…hard to tell with idiots…

  9. #9 |  thomasblair | 

    Jaime,

    Exactly. I was planning to mention this myself.

  10. #10 |  John Jenkins | 

    @ Jaime, does the doctrine of mutual departure still apply in GA if the contract specifically provides that no waiver of any provision will operate as a future waiver and that course of dealing will not amend the contract?

    I would really like to see the contract, for a few reasons. First, I am not going to take that reporter’s word on what it says because I have a relatively low opinion of TV journalists.

    Second, contract interpretation is not the same as just reading the words. There could be terms of art, defined terms, or words whose meanings are clear in the industry, but not to those outside.

    What I suspect the contract says is that the ME is permitted to maintain his consulting practice, but that he cannot testify for the defense in any case in Georgia. The rationale for that provision would be that he is the chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia, so a Georgia jury might give his testimony undue weight on that basis, since he would be the de facto superior of the ME testifying in the case. I am not sure whether that’s a good reason as a matter of policy (I think I can argue both ways on that), but at least it makes sense.

  11. #11 |  Nick T | 

    Why did he quote so many people saying that what sperry did was unethical and unprofessional. Does he have other stories about state employees violating their contract? He doens’t even have stories baout ones violating their oathes to tell te truth so….

    He’s full of crap.

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