The Yolo County Coroner’s Office Needs to Sever Ties with Forensic Medical Group –
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.
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