Opinion » Viewpoint

The Rest of the Story

Two Memphis federal court cases get lopsided coverage from local media.

by

comment

Media coverage of two big pending federal court cases -- one involving former medical examiner O.C. Smith and one involving football booster Logan Young -- again failed to note the significance of the latest developments.

In the Smith case, a fellow medical examiner concluded that the Shelby County Regional Forensic Center is unresponsive and handles evidence carelessly and that Smith, accused of faking a bizarre attack on himself in 2002, made statements under oath with professional certainty that were actually "opinions" and "speculative."

In Young's case, a judge promised to act within a month on a motion to dismiss the case. In a related case in Alabama, two University of Alabama officials gave affidavits about the NCAA investigation of the Albert Means recruiting case that suggest that it may be a house of cards.

The Commercial Appeal, heavily invested in the credibility of Smith in general and in the NCAA and state and federal prosecutors in Young's case, ignored key elements of both stories.

Taking the Smith case first, Smith's apologists put a positive spin on Nashville medical examiner Bruce Levy's report last month, in which Levy agreed that Philip Workman fired the gunshot that killed Memphis police lieutenant Ronald Oliver in 1981. Workman is on death row.

Governor Phil Bredesen asked Levy to review Smith's testimony in clemency hearings for Workman in 2000 and 2001. (Smith is under federal indictment for giving false statements about the alleged attack on him.) Last year, Bredesen issued a stay of execution for Workman pending completion of the Smith investigation. When the feds called Smith a liar, the governor asked Levy to review his Workman testimony.

"I am not at all surprised by Dr. Levy's opinion," said Shelby County district attorney general Bill Gibbons. "It is what I expected. Twenty-two years ago, a jury of citizens decided that Philip Workman deserved the death penalty. It is past time to carry out that decision."

Levy's report, however, should give pause to any prosecutor dependent on Smith. It is anything but an endorsement. On the contrary, Levy was critical of Smith on several counts, including his work on the Workman case. "There was initial difficulty locating the original autopsy materials" from Smith's office, according to Levy. Levy requested materials from Smith's office in February but was told that they were missing. "They were eventually located after my fourth request, reportedly during a search of the basement of the Shelby County Regional Forensic Center on or about April 2, 2004. They were reportedly in an unlabeled evidence bag behind some boxes."

Levy said he is "concerned about the obvious violation of the proper handling and storage of autopsy evidence and materials, especially given recent allegations of other missing evidence from the forensic center."

The "missing evidence" is body parts. Smith also allowed the professional certification of the office to lapse. The highly secretive office was as sloppy and unresponsive to the governor as it was to local media. And in Workman's case, "Although the recovered bullet could be the bullet that killed Lt. Oliver, Smith's opinion that it is the fatal bullet to the exclusion of all others is speculative," Levy wrote.

This is the medical examiner whom Gibbons and fellow prosecutors have relied on in hundreds of close cases that are matters of life and death.

In Logan Young's case, U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen said last week he will rule within 30 days on a defense motion to dismiss. Such motions are commonplace, but this one plausibly argues that even if Young gave money to former high school football coach Lynn Lang, it wasn't a federal crime because it would not have corrupted Lang in the performance of his public duties as a football coach. Defense attorney Robert Hutton says it is analogous to a parent paying a teacher to tutor a child as opposed to bribing a teacher to give a child a high grade.

Breen has already affirmed an order of U.S. magistrate Diane Vescovo requiring the NCAA and University of Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer to produce tapes and records. Federal prosecutors have appealed. The next court date is May 24th.

Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Circuit Court, university officials Gene Marsh and Marie Robbins were dismissed from a related case because the plaintiffs decided they were "used and misled" by the NCAA and the university in the investigation of Alabama's football program. Marsh is a law professor and a member of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions. Robbins is associate athletic director. The plaintiffs are former Alabama football coaches Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams.

Marsh says in an affidavit that the NCAA "failed to share information they had received with us and failed to allow us to take efforts to prevent impropriety from occurring" in the Means case.

Add a comment