Ex-medical examiner unable to testify

Joan Wood has resurfaced, but says stress prevents her from appearing in court about several murder cases.
St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 23, 2002

GAINESVILLE — Dr. Joan Wood virtually disappeared after she was forced into retirement as Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner in late 2000.

She dodged subpoenas to testify in murder cases about autopsies. She didn’t answer her phone or knocks on her front door. To this day, defense attorneys can’t locate her.

Defense attorney Michael Schwartzberg of St. Petersburg said he has never had so much difficulty finding a witness. “Not one who is still alive,” he said.

But on Thursday, Wood appeared for the second straight day at a conference of state medical examiners in Gainesville. The appearance comes even as she still insists to prosecutors she is unable to testify in a handful of ongoing cases because of health problems caused by 25 years of job stress.

Wood, 58, plans to launch a pathology consulting business by the end of next month.

In her first interview since her departure, Wood discussed years of overwhelming job stress that still keeps her out of court.

That included the stress of one of her last high-profile cases, her reversal on the cause of death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who died in 1995 after 17 days in church custody. McPherson’s death became a focus for critics of the church.

Wood ruled McPherson died of complications from dehydration. But in 2000, she ruled the death accidental, and charges of abuse of a disabled adult and practicing medicine without a license were dropped. Wood said Thursday that her decision was based on facts, not pressure from anyone.

“Scientology didn’t get to me,” she said flatly.

In the Lisa McPherson case, the church “hounded” her office during the criminal case with unending paperwork requests and subpoenas, she said.

After the reversal, she felt the heat from the other side. Prosecutor Doug Crow warned Wood that he was releasing a report critical of her decision. Wood said she asked Crow if she and prosecutors could “still be friends.”

“He told me, “I don’t know if that’s possible,’ ” Wood said. “Their reaction shocked me.”

Now that Wood appears to be out and working again, she may face legal complications in the courtrooms she said she now dreads.

Prosecutors say Wood told them shortly after leaving office that she could not testify because of stress. Other doctors working with the Medical Examiner’s Office, reviewing her notes, have testified for her at trials on autopsies she conducted.

But some local lawyers, told of Wood’s activities in Gainesville and new business venture, say they might try to compel her testimony.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday August 24, 2002.
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