O.C. Smith Reconsidered

Wharton sees possible "Fuhrman" problem; celebrity medical examiner "very skeptical."

Posted by John Branston on Fri, Oct 3, 2003 at 4:00 AM

When he nominated Dr. O.C. Smith as chief medical examiner in 2000, Shelby County mayor Jim Rout praised him for being "accessible and available."

Right. And he's a natty dresser with an expensive haircut.

Smith, who favors hospital scrubs and a crewcut, is the focus of one of the biggest cases confronting the medical examiner's office since the death of Elvis Presley. But lately he's been more invisible than accessible, handing off cases to an assistant and answering no questions about the bizarre bomb-and-barbed-wire attack on him on June 1, 2002, or the attempted bombing of his office three months earlier.

After initially hyping the case as possibly terrorism (see chronology below), police and federal investigators have gone into no-comment mode as a federal grand jury convenes. District Attorney Bill Gibbons issues a cryptic three-sentence statement. Federal investigators say all avenues are still open. The Commercial Appeal cautions against a rush to judgment.

A slow walk to indecision is more like it. Someone puts bombs in a public building and on a public official when the country is on terror alert; elite investigators swarm over the scene, then nothing happens for 16 months. A prominent medical examiner says the case is strange even by his standards.

"I must admit I was very, very skeptical when I heard about this," Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) medical examiner and frequent television commentator who has testified in more than 500 murder cases, told the Flyer. "As a pathologist who has been involved in some controversial matters for 40 years, nobody has ever come close to physically assaulting me or tying me up or beating me up."

Wecht said Smith case investigators had "a lot to work with." A tenet of the trade called Locard's Principle holds that whenever there is contact between two people, there will be some transfer of some physical substance between them. The more sustained the contact, the greater the likelihood of a physical transfer, Wecht said.

"If I bind you and tie this and that around you, that takes some time," he said. "You got blood, you got threads, you got hairs. Did they ever find anything they could show came from somebody? There are some questions to be asked."

Wecht does not know Smith but has a connection to him through the Philip Workman murder case. Wecht testified for Workman's attorneys in post-conviction appeals. Smith testified for the prosecution.

Within a few months of the attack on Smith, the Flyer and presumably other local media began to get off-the-record reports of weird goings-on in Smith's office, including one about employees so fearful at work that they were packing pistols. When we tried to check them out with Smith, we were denied access by him and by Shelby County Health Department spokeswoman Brenda Ward.

The sketchy details of the attack itself were so bizarre that we thought half-seriously of trying to re-create it in our office with a bale of barbed wire, an "attacker," and a "victim." Good sense -- and fear that we did not have enough mops and buckets to clean up the likely bath of blood -- prevented this. When we finally got an investigator to talk to us, he said it was indeed strange, but the working theory was still that the Smith attacker was also the office bomber and the author of threatening letters about Smith.

Finally, last week someone pointed out the elephant at the dinner table. Given an opening by Governor Phil Bredesen, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton acted to remove Smith from office.

"Some things about the case came to my attention in the fall of last year," Wharton said. He wouldn't say exactly what or how, but his chief administrative officer is former assistant federal prosecutor John Fowlkes, and Wharton is a former public defender.

"There was a cloud over a critical player, but I couldn't even say that there was an investigation going on," Wharton said. "I was between a rock and a hard place."

He feared that whatever the facts of the Smith case, the Shelby County criminal courts could end up with something like the O.J. Simpson case where police investigator Mark Fuhrman became a big issue.

"Considering my long history in the criminal justice system, I have a responsibility to say to the County Commission that circumstances have developed that there is a great likelihood that [Dr. Smith] cannot effectively perform his duties," said Wharton.

When Bredesen delayed the execution of Philip Workman because of a 15-month-old federal investigation in West Tennessee, Wharton felt free to act. He refuses to say whether the information he has indicates a mad bomber or something else but says it makes little difference as far as the ability of the medical examiner to do his job. A bomb is a bomb, and the mayor said recent events such as the Pennsylvania "pizza bomber" made him worry about public safety as well as efficient criminal investigations and trials.

Numerous questions remain unanswered: Why did Bredesen and state attorney general Paul Summers let Workman's execution reach the 11th hour before halting it because of a 15-month-old investigation? What exactly is the relevance to O.C. Smith? And what was the purpose of the attack? "If you really hate a guy and you're really disturbed, what's the point?" asked Wecht. "If you want to harm or kill him, do it."

James Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Smith investigation for the ATF, said this week the case is "very active and part of our everyday life. We don't forget cases after other people do." He said the theory that the same person attacked Smith, planted the bombs in the morgue, and wrote the letters is still "a major-league category" of the investigation. He said he cannot comment further until someone is charged.

A Chronology of the O.C. Smith Case

January 24, 2000: Dr. O.C. Smith, who has worked in the office since 1978 and been running it on an interim basis for six months, is named chief medical examiner.

March 2000: Death-row inmate Philip Workman is scheduled to be executed April 6th for killing Memphis police officer Ronald Oliver during an armed robbery in 1981. But Workman's attorneys present what they say is new evidence: X-rays of Oliver's body which show no evidence of a bullet or bullet fragment. Smith says he only recently learned of the existence of the X-rays, which Workman's lawyers had sought without success at trial and during post-conviction appeal. Smith turns them over to the defense team.

March 30, 2001: Workman gets an 11th-hour stay of execution from the state Supreme Court, which orders another review of the case.

April 2001: Three threatening letters are received by a newspaper reporter, police office, and private citizen. One letter says "The EVIL ONE is in the body of O.C. SMITH, souless [sic] PAWN of the DEVIL, guilty of TWO MORTAL SINS." Another calls him a "LIAR" and says he is trying to "MURDER PHILLIP [sic] R. WORKMAN," a "LAMB OF GOD."

November 2001: A judge reviews Workman's case and rules against him. Workman is sent back to death row.

March 13, 2002: Three bombs are found by a janitor in a publicly accessible stairwell of the Shelby County Regional Forensic Center, which includes Smith's office. ATF agents say one of the bombs was capable of killing "several people."

June 1, 2002: Smith is attacked outside his office and bound in barbed wire and tied to a bomb. Smith is not seriously hurt and appears briefly at a news conference but doesn't take questions. The ATF calls in its elite National Response Team.

June 4, 2002: James Cavanaugh, chief ATF agent in Tennessee, says, "Anybody who might know the perpetrator could be in danger." He says the letters, the bombs, and now the attack show the attacker is growing bolder and more dangerous.

June 5, 2002: Memphis police investigators and bomb-squad officers are interviewed for an episode of the nationally syndicated television show America's Most Wanted. Agents say it produces some "very interesting" tips.

August 18, 2002: "We're confident we can solve the case," says ATF agent Gene Marquez. The case is "our priority investigation right now." The ATF says it has evidence linking the attack to the previous bombings and threatening letters.

November 8, 2002: ATF agent Cavanaugh tells the Flyer the bomber may have gone underground like the Unabomber. He provides other details. The attacker was a lone, fleshy faced white man, 30-40 years old. He wore gloves, punched Smith in the stomach, and jumped on him, did not carry a gun or knife, and chained Smith to a window grate in a "semi-crucified" position -- all in the space of a few minutes. "Why go through these elaborate histrionics?" says Cavanaugh. "It's hard to say." Asked if the attack might have been staged, Cavanaugh says, "I've been a cop too long to not think that there might be something else. I'm open to any angles."

September 15, 2003: Nine days before Workman is scheduled to be executed, Gov. Phil Bredesen grants him a four-month reprieve, citing a pending federal investigation that started in West Tennessee 15 months ago.

September 24, 2003: Shelby County mayor A C Wharton says he intends to replace Smith. Initially, he cites a statement from district attorney Bill Gibbons, but Gibbons denies authorizing any statement about Smith. The next day, Wharton cites an opinion by the county attorney as grounds for replacing Smith.

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