Shading the truth

Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner

Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner

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, WAGA

Dale Russell, WAGA

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+

Advertisements
This entry was posted in i-team, russell dale, WAGA on by .

About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

2 thoughts on “Shading the truth

  1. Jim

    Yeah, my wife and I got into it over this one. As soon as the story began to imply that he should only testify for the prosecution, I started questioning it. It’s not his job to be biased toward either side.

    Do I think he “may” have sold out to the highest bidder? Maybe. Did the story prove it? No.

    If he was going to suggest that Sperry sold out, Russell should have had a LOT more substance backing up his allegations that testifying for the defense was wrong. In the case mentioned, who knows, maybe Sperry was right and kept an innocent person from going to jail? The story failed to prove that Sperry had ever testified untruthfully, which is the only way to say he “sold out”.

    I’ve seen Sperry testify, and he was very well spoken and did a good job of connecting with the jury. More than that, he seemed to be saying what he believed in. That’s what I WANT from anyone who testifies…tell the truth, no matter which side it benefits.

    Reply
  2. Mike

    FYI: Many judges in Georgia are part-time and do have other “side businesses.”

    Nice commentary on the issues underlying Russell’s story. As for the unexplored issue, I’d love to see it but won’t hold my breath.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s