Commentary: Sheriff Deserves Praise for Decisive Action on Forensic Pathologist

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Sheriff-PrietoThe Yolo County Coroner’s Office Needs to Sever Ties with Forensic Medical Group –

I don’t use this space very often to praise the actions of public officials.  There are a number of reasons for that that we won’t get into, but part of it is the watchdog function that we perform necessarily leads us in directions critical of the actions of those in local government.

We have been critical in the past and will be in the future of Sheriff Ed Prieto, but the Sheriff deserves praise for his handling of the coroner’s office and the firing of forensic pathologist Thomas Gill who worked for the Forensic Medical Group (FMG), a private company the county contracts with for doing autopsies.

It is not that the big sheriff did not look more than a bit clumsy at the 45-minute mark of the Frontline expose on death investigations.

Sheriff Prieto was asked by Frontline if they do background checks on the forensic pathologists.

“We do a background investigation to make sure, for criminal activity,” the Sheriff responded, “We make sure their qualifications are valid.”

However, when Frontline mentioned that Dr. Gill “has serious problems around the United States,” the Sheriff appeared caught completely off guard and responded, “Oh really?”

As Frontline went into Dr. Gill’s history and the problems in Sonoma County that warranted a bar association investigation and condemnation, the Sheriff responded, “I did not know that.  I think you alerted me to something –again  I always depend on the experts and sometimes the experts don’t always give you the right information.  So I think this really has alerted me to look into this a little bit further.”

What happened next was the kind of clear and decisive action that we did not see taken previously on Dr. Gill in his various misadventures across the country, nor was it the kind of action that we saw taken on some of the other troubling cases that the Frontline investigation uncovered.

The Sheriff acted quickly on that information.  Frontline reported that following that interview, Sheriff Prieto requested that FMG no longer send Dr. Gill to Yolo County.

Chief Deputy Coroner Robert LaBrash told the Vanguard, “Once the Sheriff learned about [Dr. Gill through the Frontline Interview], we then acted accordingly which meant severing our involvement with Dr. Gill at that time.” 

This action was particularly praiseworthy because it occurred in December, when no one in this area knew anything about Dr. Gill or the Frontline report.  He took clear and decisive action outside of any sort of public pressure.

As I said, I wish others were as diligent.  In the same Frontline episode it became clear that Dr. Gill had been dismissed from FMG following the botching of the autopsy in Sonoma County that led to a potentially innocent man to face murder charges for the death of his wife. 

The DA got involved in this case and began to coach Dr. Gill.  When the recordings became known to the defense, the case was dismissed.  In fact, the situation was so serious that the bar association suspended the DA involved for four years.  But they did nothing to Dr. Gill.

Dr. Gill then moved on to Kansas City where he became involved in some more problematic investigations, but by 2007 he was hired back at FMG and practiced hundreds of autopsies in several counties, including Yolo County.

When asked on camera, the spokesperson for FMG indicated that they were not aware of the bar association ruling nor were they aware of any problems with Dr. Gill since he came back to their company.

The response of FMG seems typical of the cases that the Frontline investigation exposed and makes the Sheriff’s actions all the more commendable.

But it does lead us to question the judgment, and the process of scrutiny by FMG. 

And that leads us to a huge cause of concern.

As Robert LaBrash, the Chief Deputy Coroner of Yolo County told the Vanguard, “We are still involved with FMG (Forensic Medical Group) through a contract and I’m very confident in FMG in terms of what they’ve done for us.”

“As far as how it impacts Yolo County in terms of the autopsies, I am very very confident in the autopsies that were performed in Yolo County which includes the autopsies that were performed by Dr. Gill,” he said.

Mr. LaBrash also expressed confidence in the ability of his staff to spot and correct any potential problems with an autopsy.

He told the Vanguard, “We have looked into each and every death investigation with confidence that the findings that we have are solid and sound.”

Robert LaBrash told the Vanguard that the coroner’s office has worked with FMG for at least a decade.  The coroner’s office itself is charged with investigating any sudden or violent death that occurs in Yolo County.

For any death that requires an autopsy, the county contracts FMG to perform the autopsy and report back on the findings.

The coroner’s office would then review the autopsy and there are a number of layers of oversight in the process.

However, apparently that does not always work, as issues have arisen involving a Sonoma County murder investigation where Dr. Gill improperly performed the autopsy and his findings had numerous holes in them.

As the Vanguard reported on Wednesday, in late 1999, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office investigators responded to the call from a local physician whose wife was dead. He reportedly suspected suicide.  The Sheriff’s Department, according to the report, “did not initially treat Pelfini’s home as a crime scene, police records show, but they ultimately came to suspect Pelfini had killed his wife, Janet.”

Dr. Gill was called into examination and determined that the woman had died from asphyxiation, and her body was immediately cremated.

As the California Report notes, “The California State Bar investigated the handling of the Pelfini case and suspended the prosecutor from practicing law for four years for his role in suppressing evidence about Gill’s coaching sessions. The bar report devoted several pages to Gill’s errors.” The prosecutor had recognized there were problems with the autopsy, and had acted to coach Dr. Gill on how to explain them.

“Unfortunately,” it concluded, “Dr. Gill was not a competent pathologist.”

While Yolo County  Chief Deputy Coronor Robert LaBrash could not directly comment on that case, however, he did say, “We were aware that Dr. Gill had some problem in a test find, that this was not his strongest suit.  So that much we were aware of.”

“In terms of the competence of the autopsies he has performed for Yolo County,” Mr. LaBrash added, “We are extremely confident in the quality of the autopsies.”

But should we not then question the judgment of FMG?  As anyone who watched the Frontline investigation, this is not merely a matter of wrongful murder findings.  There were a number of cases that should have been investigated and tried as murders, but were not, due to poor investigative techniques by the forensic medical examiner.

In the Sonoma Case, the individual had murder charges dropped, based on the botched autopsy.  It is possible that without the tapes an innocent man could have gone to prison.  On other hand, the community is left with the unsettling possibility that a guilty man has gone free and they will never know the truth about the 1999 death.

National Public Radio (NPR) this week reported that flawed autopsies in Mississippi sent two innocent men to prison, in separate crimes just two years apart.  For this, they spent 30 years in prison for crimes that they were later exonerated for.

Reports NPR, the men “were separately charged with sexually assaulting and murdering two 3-year-old girls — in two separate crimes — two years apart.”

“The pathologist who conducted both autopsies said he suspected the girls had been bitten,” they continue. “The forensic dentist who testified in both trials said the teeth marks found on both girls matched that of Brooks and Brewer.”

After an investigation led by the Mississippi Innocence Project, Brooks and Brewer were exonerated through DNA evidence in 2008.

When innocent people go to prison, guilty ones go free and that is what happened here.

NPR reports, “The lab that cleared the men also generated a DNA profile of a new suspect – Justin Albert Johnson. He confessed to both crimes and is currently awaiting trial.”

They add, “Additionally, an expert panel hired by the Innocence Project said the marks on the girls’ bodies were most likely caused by routine decomposition or fish, turtle and insect activity in the water where the bodies were found.”

This is not a novel problem.

Again, we commend the Sheriff for his quick and decisive action.  We know that both the DA’s Office and Public Defender’s Offices will be reviewing necessary cases to determine if there is a problem.  But we feel that FMG is part of the problem and that the Yolo County would be better suited cutting their ties to this company.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “Commentary: Sheriff Deserves Praise for Decisive Action on Forensic Pathologist”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “”In terms of the competence of the autopsies he [Gill] has performed for Yolo County,” Mr. LaBrash added, “We are extremely confident in the quality of the autopsies.””

    LOL How could you possibly be confident in autopsies done by Gill knowing he is a total incompetent?

    dmg: “But should we not then question the judgment of FMG?…But we feel that FMG is part of the problem and that the Yolo County would be better suited cutting their ties to this company.”

    FMG clearly has a problem w a failure to properly vet its employees when they are hired, and seems to have an ongoing quality control issue (no one seems to be randomly checking the quality of the work). The problem is FMG may be the “only game in town”, and may be the reason Yolo County is still contracting w them for services. As Frontline pointed out, there are not a whole lot of qualified individuals who do this sort of work. However part of the problem is the voters have to be willing to pay for qualified work w their taxpayers’ dollars.

    dmg: “Again, we commend the Sheriff for his quick and decisive situation.”

    I assume you meant “quick and decisive resolution to the situation”. What I want to know is why LaBrash is not as quick and decisive as Sheriff Ed Prieto in regard to Gill? I assume bc LaBrash doesn’t want the results of all those autopsies performed for criminal cases to be reopened. The Public Defenders Office is right to investigate back cases for possible problems w the autopsies…

  2. Superfluous Man

    “’We do a background investigation to make sure, for criminal activity,’ the Sheriff responded, ‘We make sure their qualifications are valid’.”

    “However, when Frontline mentioned that Dr. Gill ‘has serious problems around the United States,’ the Sheriff appeared caught completely off guard and responded, ‘Oh really?’”

    When they conduct their own background investigation into the individuals criminal history, is this done by simply running that person’s fingerprints trough a criminal database (ie DOJ)? Or do they do a full-fledged background investigation whereby Sheriff personnel (background detective/investigator) look closely into the individuals past beyond the RAP sheet?

  3. E Roberts Musser

    highbeam: “The point that ERM made…and if I am late doing the proofreading, many of you have read the article before I have done the editing.”

    No worries – the only reason I pointed it out is bc I wanted to make sure my point was clear. Otherwise minor mistakes like this are not a big issue. We all understand how difficult it is to write so much w/o making typos or slip occasionally in leaving out a word or two… we commenters are prone to the same problem. I know I’ve made typos plenty of times!

  4. Rifkin

    [i]”The [b]forensic dentist[/b] who testified in both trials said the teeth marks found on both girls matched that of Brooks and Brewer.” After an investigation led by the Mississippi Innocence Project, Brooks and Brewer were exonerated through DNA evidence in 2008. [/i]

    Not that I am any kind of expert on the topic, but much of what I have read about “forensic dentistry” with regard to bite marks leads me to believe it is pseudo-science ([url]http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/weekinreview/28santos.html?_r=1[/url]).

    I can see how a clear bite mark could exclude one or another suspect in some cases. However, the notion that “Suspect A is the one who left the bite mark because his teeth fit the pattern” doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s just too easy for a “forensic dentist” to line up a molding of the suspect’s choppers with the marks found on the victim in such a way to make the person look guilty, when those same marks could have been left by thousands of other people.

  5. roger bockrath

    Regarding the hiring, and then rehiring of an incompetent forensic investigator by Forensic Medical Group…

    It seems like asking for documentation of previous employment history would be a minimal requirement for any personnel contracted to provide credible evidence in murder trials.

    The Yolo County Sheriff Department is an investigatory organization. They, of all people, should know that unexplained missing periods in a potential professional employee’s work history equals problems.

    In the Frontline piece,the guy who hired Dr.Gill, at FMG, looked every bit as clueless as Sherriff Ed Prieto, when questioned about Gill’s work history.
    Today, in the Sac Bee, an article about about the effect of budget cuts on forensic investigations, mentions that the majority of the forensic investigations performed in Northern California go to Forensic Medical Group. However, in Southern California, most large communities have their own forensic teams who work on the public payroll
    with oversight.

    It seems like the greater Sacramento area, with a population exceding 300,000, should have forensic investigators on the public payroll. FMG billed out over $3,000,000. in 2009. The death investigation business is booming in Northern California. If the D.A. can find federal grant monies for questionable gang supression in West Sacramento, surely there must be a way to fund a regionwide publicly funded forensic investigations program, with enough oversight to assure competent testimony in murder cases.

  6. Rifkin

    [i]”It seems like the greater Sacramento area, with a population exceding 300,000, should have forensic investigators on the public payroll.”[/i]

    For the record, the population of Sacramento County and its contiguous counties is far more than 300,000. There are 1.4 million residents in Sacramento County alone. When you add in the 8 counties which are contiguous, the regional population is 4,381,213.

    Sacramento + Yolo + Placer + Solano + El Dorado + Sutter + Amador + San Joaquin + Contra Costa = 1,400,949 + 199,407 + 348,552 + 407,234 + 178,447 + 92,614 + 37,876 + 674,860 + 1,041,274 = 4,381,213.

    Source ([url]http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/06067.html[/url]): 2009 US Census estimates.

  7. E Roberts Musser

    rb: “It seems like the greater Sacramento area, with a population exceding 300,000, should have forensic investigators on the public payroll. FMG billed out over $3,000,000. in 2009. The death investigation business is booming in Northern California. If the D.A. can find federal grant monies for questionable gang supression in West Sacramento, surely there must be a way to fund a regionwide publicly funded forensic investigations program, with enough oversight to assure competent testimony in murder cases.”

    I would agree w you, but taxpayers have to be willing to pay for it – and this sort of thing does not get much press attention. As Frontline pointed out, it would probably cost citizens a minimal amount of money per year to fund proper forensic staff/testing.

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