Legal battle over medical examiner’s track record
A man convicted of murder more than 20 years ago is fighting for access to the personnel records of the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, claiming the examiner was known to be incompetent. Last week, prosecutors took the fight to Massachusetts’ top court.
Emory Snell Jr. was convicted in 1995 of murdering his wife, Elizabeth Lee, in their Marstons Mills home. At trial, Dr. William Zane, who retired in 2015 from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, testified the cause of death was smothering.
But Snell, who has lost numerous appeals, has challenged Zane’s credibility, armed with analyses from other pathologists who say they found flaws in the autopsy. Snell has also pointed out that Zane had been restricted from conducting homicide autopsies in the past.
On Tuesday, a Barnstable County judge ordered the Cape and Islands district attorney to hand over Zane’s personnel file for the judge to review for relevant documents, which would be turned over to Snell. Prosecutors immediately filed a motion with the Supreme Judicial Court, seeking to block that order.
“In this case, the defendant is not looking for evidence to support a claim, he is seeking to conduct a fishing expedition and go through a third party’s personnel records in order to manufacture a claim,” wrote Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Sweeney.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner also opposed Snell’s request for the file.
Zane did not return a call to his home.
Snell has long maintained his innocence. In December, he filed his latest motion for a new trial, claiming there were “many scientifically significant errors and omissions” in Zane’s autopsy report. Multiple pathologists agreed, according to statements written on Snell’s behalf.
“Dr. Zane did not perform a good enough evaluation of the body to determine the cause of death,” wrote Dr. Gerald Feigin in a sworn statement submitted with Snell’s motion. Feigin, who has worked as a medical examiner in Massachusetts and New Jersey, reviewed Zane’s autopsy report and testimony, as well as tissue samples.
Another pathologist suggested Zane may have confused samples from Elizabeth Snell’s body with tissue from another person, possibly an infant.
“There are tissues from the hearts of two different people . . . and from the liver of two different people,” Dr. Thomas Young concluded, writing that the samples suggest certain portions from each organ appear to come from “an unknown infant.”
Pathologists also noted there were no apparent signs of a struggle. “During an intentional suffocation, there is always a struggle and the autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive as the person attempts to survive,” wrote Dr. Stanton Kessler, who previously supervised Zane and taught pathology at Boston University and Harvard Medical School.
Kessler’s report may prove key to Snell’s appeal, since he also wrote that Zane was not allowed to perform homicide autopsies without a supervisor present, which Zane did in the Snell case. If another supervisor was not available, Zane was supposed to bring bodies to Boston so Kessler could oversee the autopsy, Kessler wrote.
“Bringing the body to Boston took extra time and Zane was not fond of being supervised,” Kessler wrote. “His poor work product and lack of judgment, however, necessitated it.”
But Kessler died in 2011, shortly after reviewing the Snell autopsy materials. Since Kessler cannot testify, prosecutors argued that his report cannot be used to support Snell’s new trial bid. In her motion, Sweeney described Kessler’s report as the work of “a disgruntled employee.”
But it is not the first allegation of incompetence against Zane. In 2007, after admitting on the stand that he made a mistake in the autopsy of a teenager, Zane was prohibited from conducting autopsies in homicide cases by the public safety secretary at the time, Kevin M. Burke.
It is unclear when this restriction was lifted, and Zane conducted the autopsy of Odin L. Lloyd, who was shot six times by Aaron Hernandez in 2013.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner declined to comment on the Snell case.
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