Politics » Politics Feature

Republican Justice and Memphis' O.C. Smith Case


How interesting that two players in the bizarre case of former Shelby County Medical Examiner O. C. Smith have since gotten in trouble with the U.S. Justice Department while Smith himself -- and his alleged attacker, if there was one -- is a free man thanks to a hung jury.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, a nationally famous forensic pathologist and frequent media commentator, is in the news this week. Richard Thornburgh, a former Republican U.S. attorney general, told a Congressional hearing that Wecht, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, was indicted on federal charges in 2006 for "nickel and dime transgressions" by a prosecutor who targeted Democrats. Thornburgh made his statement in the context of a hearing about politicization of the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales.

Wecht played a small but important part in the Smith case before Smith was indicted in 2004 for staging his own attack and binding himself with barbed wire in 2002. In an interview with The Flyer five months before the indictment, Wecht said he was "very skeptical" about Smith's claim that he was attacked by an unknown assailant. At the time, the Flyer was alone in raising doubts about the case while federal and state prosecutors, Memphis police, and The Commercial Appeal were either defending it or ignoring it.

Wecht and Smith were also on opposite sides in post-conviction appeals of the Philip Workman murder case. Smith claimed his attacker was a death-penalty opponent sympathetic to Workman.

After the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided Smith was a suspect rather than a victim, he was indicted on federal charges. Terry Harris, who was then the U.S. attorney in Memphis, recused himself because the office had a professional relationship with the medical examiner. U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock came to Memphis to prosecute Smith. The trial ended in 2005 in a hung jury. Smith, who did not testify, was not retried.

A little over a year later, Cummins was informed that he was being replaced by a friend of Karl Rove, political adviser to President George W. Bush. Cummins, a Republican who is now in private practice, has said his firing was political and that it damaged the credibility of the Justice Department.

Cummins wanted to retry Smith, but an absence of eyewitnesses along with pro-Smith testimony from Memphis police and an attorney in Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons' office made the case problematic.

So the attack on O. C. Smith is the ultimate Memphis cold case.

But it shouldn't be. The case, which was once the top priority nationally of the BATF, should be reopened because only two conclusions are possible, and neither is acceptable: Either Smith was attacked by a mad bomber who is still at large and apt to strike again against Smith or some other public official. Or a medical examiner who gave key testimony in hundreds, if not thousands, of criminal cases had severe mental problems, sent investigators on an expensive wild goose chase, and endangered the lives of the men who disarmed the homemade bomb around his neck.

In the interests of justice, impartiality, and public safety, U.S. Attorney David Kustoff and Gibbons -- both Republicans -- should put their heads together and one of them should appoint a special prosecutor to get to the truth of the O.C. Smith case.

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