Medical Examiner's Firing Raises Concerns Over Testimony In Criminal Cases

Friday, August 17th 2012, 6:22 pm
By: News On 6

The Tulsa County District Attorney is exploring several options now that Tulsa's medical examiner has been fired.

While defense attorneys say the firing could jeopardize criminal cases, prosecutors say they deal with this issue all the time.

Dr. Andrew Sibley was the state's deputy chief examiner.

He signed off on hundreds of autopsies over the years, including several homicides.

Dr. Sibley was fired from the Medical Examiner's office in Tulsa late last month.

8/15/2012 Related Story: OK Medical Examiner's Office Dealing With Major Backlog

Public defenders in Pete Silva's office are already arguing in court that the firing could call several criminal cases into question.

"Whether or not a substitute witness, i.e. a medical examiner with regard to Dr. Sibley's absence, is going to be permitted to come in to court and testify and if so, to what extent?" Silva said.

Someone else can't simply come in and read off Dr. Sibley's notes as testimony.

Defendants have the constitutional right to confront and question witnesses.

"There are rules of evidence," Silva said. "While we may all know exactly what happened, if we don't have a witness who can come in and say it under oath on a witness stand, it didn't happen."

Doug Drummond with the Tulsa County District Attorney's office said he absolutely agrees, but says this scenario is common.

"In my sixteen years, I know we've probably dealt with this ten times, but maybe as much as once a year," Drummond said.

The DA's office plans to bring in a substitute witness to review the records and photographs of the autopsy report, and then give an independent opinion on the cause of death.

Drummond said a U.S. Supreme Court case from July of this year supports that option.

"Maybe some expended resources, if we have to fly somebody in, for example, the medical examiner may have to come here from Oklahoma City, but other than some inconveniences, we think we'll be fine," Drummond said.

The DA could also bring in an emergency room doctor to testify on the cause of death.

The high profile murder of Neal Sweeney goes to trial on Monday.

Doug Drummond said a judge has already ruled in that case that the state can use a substitute witness for the medical examiner's report.

The substitute witness will be Chief Examiner Dr. Eric Pfeifer.