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Judge says state’s chief medical examiner was victim of ‘smear campaign’

A long-dormant ethical accusation against Dr. Henry Nields, the state’s chief medical examiner, has been formally rejected by a Superior Court judge who labeled it as a “smear campaign’’ by a disgruntled former colleague.

Nields had been accused of fabricating his credentials in an affidavit by Dr. C. Stanton Kessler, a former acting chief medical examiner for Massachusetts who left the state and was then rebuffed in repeated attempted to get rehired, according to the ruling by Barnstable Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson.

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Kessler filed the affidavit in 2010 as part of a post-conviction motion in the high-profile case of Christopher McCowen, a Cape Cod trash man convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Christa Worthington in 2002 in Truro..

Kessler died in 2011, and McCowen’s primary defense attorney, Robert A. George, was sentenced in 2012 to 3½ years in federal prison for money laundering and related crimes, ending his legal ties to the McCowen case.

But the allegations against Nields were still part of a pending motion, and Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said in an interview he was determined to have a judge decide the issue, especially after State Police conducted an expansive investigation that fully backed Nields’s insistence that he had done nothing wrong.

Nickerson, after reviewing Kessler’s affidavit and the State Police investigation, issued his ruling on Tuesday.

“Dr. Kessler’s bald allegation that his signatures on documents associated with Dr. Nields’ certification as a forensic pathologist were forged is false,’’ Nickerson wrote. The State Police “report and the supporting documents dissect and disprove each and every allegation leveled by Dr. Kessler.’’

Nickerson wrote that he questioned “why an accomplished medical professional [like Kessler] would launch such a smear against a colleague.’’ The judge said the answer was found in a 2009 e-mail from Kessler to Massachusetts public safety officials in which “Dr. Kessler bombastically suggested his failure to secure employment in Boston was the fault of Dr. Nields.’’

O’Keefe said Nields deserved to have his name and reputation cleared of any shadow cast by Kessler’s false accusations, which were covered by The Boston Globe and other news outlets at the time.

“Without question, it is a strongly worded vindication of Dr. Nields and his integrity and his character,’’ O’Keefe said.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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