Unsolved Mystery

Medical examiner O.C. Smith has let office accreditation lapse.



In the wake of a continuing federal grand jury investigation of the bizarre assault upon Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith, his office has allowed its professional accreditation to lapse.

Smith replaced longtime medical examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco in 2000. Under Francisco, the office was accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) from June 1998 to June 2003. NAME records show that the accreditation, which could have been renewed by a process that includes inspections and interviews with the medical examiner and staff, was instead allowed to lapse.

Through Shelby County Health Department spokesman Brenda Ward, Smith declined to be interviewed by the Flyer. He has consistently refused media requests for interviews since he says someone attacked him outside his office 19 months ago, bound him with barbed wire, and attached a bomb to his chest. Police and federal investigators have failed to find the assailant.

A federal grand jury in Memphis has been looking into the case, which has attracted interest and skepticism from nationally famous medical examiners Dr. Cyril Wecht and Dr. Michael Baden. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton last month asked the Shelby County Commission to replace Smith, but he continues to serve at least until the local medical society can recommend willing and qualified replacements.

Nationwide, more than 300 medical examiner offices and forensic science labs are accredited by either NAME or the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. Among them are the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime labs in Knoxville and Nashville and the Nashville and Davidson County Forensic Sciences Center. The Shelby County Medical Examiner's Office is not accredited by either one.

"Accreditation matters quite a bit," said Dr. Bruce Levy, chief medical examiner for Tennessee and Davidson County. "Dr. Francisco was one of the earliest proponents of this whole process and Memphis was one of the first offices to be accredited. From the point of view of NAME, it's a shame to lose an office."

Smith is still on the job. That's the scoop gleaned from phone calls to his office. But it is unclear whether his duties have changed in light of the publicity he's gotten this year. For example, two weeks ago, a burning body was found in a sewer -- just the sort of gruesome, sensational case depicted on hit television shows about ace medical detectives. Asked if Smith fielded it, Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said, "It is my understanding that he did not go to the scene in the case of the burning body in the sewer. He or an assistant medical examiner is responsible for the autopsy."

Gibbons added, "Whether or not Dr. Smith or an assistant medical examiner goes to a particular homicide scene is not our call. From time to time, he has gone to the scene. In many cases, probably most, he does not go to the scene."

Last month, Gibbons and Wharton (who was the Shelby County public defender before he was elected mayor) had either a disagreement or miscommunication about Smith's status as a potential expert witness in local criminal cases. County Attorney Brian Kuhn said this week he still isn't clear and suggested the Flyer ask Gibbons and officials at the University of Tennessee, which is Smith's employer. Spokesman Odell Horton Jr. said Smith's status "has not changed from UT's standpoint" and added that the UT College of Nursing has an active and accredited program at the medical examiner's office.

Gibbons reiterated his position that "Dr. Smith may very well be used by us as an expert. We have never indicated that we would not use him."

The backdrop to this verbal fandango is the federal investigation of the Smith assault. If, as investigators originally theorized, the bomber proves to be a religiously motivated attacker with a grudge against Smith because of his testimony in the capital murder case of Philip Workman, then Wharton could have some apologizing and explaining to do. But if Smith knows more about the attack than he has said publicly so far, or if he was involved somehow, then defense attorneys are likely to suggest that several other Smith investigations were contaminated.

It has been a rough autumn for police and prosecutors. Another federal grand jury has uncovered massive theft and returned indictments against several former employees of the police department property and evidence room. Police oversight of money, drugs, and crucial evidence in criminal cases was apparently all but nonexistent despite warnings raised in an audit two years ago of the organized crime unit.

The news that comes out of the federal building in the next few months will determine a lot more than the fate of one medical examiner.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

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