In 2003, Gwinnett County prosecutors tried to send a 16 year old boy to prison for life for killing a child he was babysitting. The trial got lots of media attention. Prosecutors claimed the victim died from Shaken Baby Syndrome.
But defense attorneys had a different story: The baby had died from a brain hemorrhage that had begun more than a week prior to her death. Their expert witness was Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s state medical examiner. Sperry’s testimony refuted the testimony of the local forensic pathologist, and torpedoed the prosecution’s case. When the jury acquitted the 16-year-old, nobody in the press room was surprised. The surprise was that the Gwinnett District Attorney’s office, one of the state’s best, had brought such a weak case to trial in the first place.
Sperry’s testimony openly angered prosecutors. They fumed that because Sperry works for the state, he should only testify on behalf of prosecutors. Asked about it on the witness stand, Sperry’s answer was perfectly sensible: Why should I shade the truth for anybody?
Since then, Sperry’s bosses at the GBI have reined him in. Sperry is allowed to run a side business as an expert medical examiner. But his contract won’t allow him to provide testimony that undermines prosecutions. Yet Sperry has apparently done it anyway, in violation of his contract. WAGA’s I-Team has concluded a two-part exposé on it.
Dale Russell’s investigation apparently has Sperry cold on the issue of violating his contract. Russell visited locales in Mississippi and Tennessee where Sperry testified on behalf of murder defendants. Sperry’s boss, Vernon Keenan, tells Russell that Sperry isn’t supposed to do that.
But most of Russell’s storylines explored the “conflict of interest” angle, and it ill-serves Russell’s investigation. Russell seems to buy into the notion that Sperry has a conflict of interest when he testifies against the prosecution. It makes no sense, unless the “interest” is something other than a full, honest exploration of the evidence.
(A separate issue goes unexplored: Should the state medical examiner have a side business at all? Judges and prosecutors can’t do it. Police officers can. Ideally, the state would pay its people well enough to keep this from being an issue.)
Unfortunately, Sperry didn’t talk to Russell — probably because a) he knows he’s violating his contract and b) he knows his boss is annoyed with him. But if Sperry had talked, he might have said the same thing he told that courtroom in Gwinnett County in 2003: It’s not my job to shade the truth for either the prosecution or the defense. My job is to present the evidence, draw my conclusions as a forensic pathologist, and let the jury decide the truth.
Instead of exploring the conflict of interest angle, Russell’s investigation might have asked this question: Why is the GBI gagging the state’s chief medical examiner, arguably one of the top pathologists in the country? Sperry’s testimony saved the life of a wrongly-accused 16-year old in 2003 (a kid who’s now finishing college on a scholarship, we’re told). Sperry’s contract would prevent him from doing that now.
Sperry has screwed up, and Russell’s got the goods on Sperry’s contract. But the whole “conflict of interest” issue fails to pass the stink test. Grade: C+