Monday, December 31, 2007

Florida Ousts Controversial Medical Examiner

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission met Saturday to fill the vacancy in Judicial District 14 in the Panhandle caused by their June removal of Charles Siebert due to honesty and integrity issues.

But although Siebert was the only candidate and was endorsed by a local search committee as well as Bay County state attorney Steve Meadows who had hired Siebert as an interim medical examiner after he was canned by the state, the commission rejected him unanimously, leaving Bay County and five other counties in northern Florida without a medical examiner.

Siebert had vacated his job Friday night as interim medical examiner. Under state law, Meadows could name a “competent physician” to serve until a new candidate is presented to the commission.

Four doctors had applied for the District 14 ME’s position but all eventually took other jobs which left Siebert as the sole candidate. Siebert has reportedly accepted a position in New Jersey.

The commission had voted in May not to recommend that Siebert’s appointment be renewed by Governor Charlie Crist when it expired on June 30.

Siebert conducted the first autopsy in the death of Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old boy who died in January 2006 at the Bay County Boot Camp in Panama City. Siebert had made a determination that Anderson had died of complications from sickle cell trait which had not been previously diagnosed.

However, a second autopsy performed by Hillsborough medical examiner Vernard Adams following an exhumation indicated that the teen didn’t die from natural causes but rather as the result of suffocation at the hands of the boot camp guards when ammonia capsules were shoved up his nose.

The Florida Legislature approved and Crist signed a $5 million settlement for the Anderson family.

Seven guards and a nurse employed at the camp were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted at trial in October. The case is under investigation by the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Commission chairman Dr. Stephen Nelson said that their decision not to recommend Siebert to Crist for reappointment had nothing to do with the Anderson case but was because he hadn’t complied with a previous order to have an independent review of his work.

In August, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission reviewed the petition filed by Siebert appealing their June determination to remove him from his post in Bay County and five other Panhandle Counties and a probable cause panel’s decision that he had violated state law. The commission’s June removal order does not become final unless Siebert is unsuccessful in his appeal.

Siebert was named interim medical examiner by Meadows on June 19 and was formally served by the commission with the removal order on July 10 and filed his petition for a formal administrative hearing on July 24. The hearing has been set for Jan. 15but may be moot if Siebert is replaced prior to the hearing.

The commission had refused a request from officials of the judicial district to delay the appointment of a medical examiner until after Siebert’s January hearing.

Siebert has denied the allegations against him and says he conducted a proper autopsy in the Anderson case.

Last year, after then Attorney General Crist asked the commission to investigate autopsies conducted by Siebert that may have contained “fundamental flaws”, a three member probable cause panel of the commission ruled that Siebert had been negligent in performing at least 35 of the nearly 700 autopsies reviewed, finding that Siebert “failed to perform the duties required of a medical examiner”. Siebert has maintained that any errors that he committed were only minor and weren’t intentional.

The MEC filed a four count administrative complaint against Siebert on July 10, seeking his immediate removal from office, saying that he had lied about the work performed in the Anderson autopsy. The committee found that Siebert had made material misrepresentations in the Anderson autopsy regarding the thyroid gland and adrenal glands and levied negligence allegations against Siebert in regard to his examination of the groin area and subcutaneous hemorrhages on the thighs and right forearm of Anderson.

Siebert says he did remove and inspect thyroid gland and adrenal glands and found nothing remarkable. He says in regard to his examination of the groin area, he exercised is professional discretion to not dissect the prostate gland and testes because dissection was not necessary to allow him to establish a cause of death.

He argues that he didn’t flay Anderson’s skin because it was evidence from the video that bruising would be existent in those areas but not responsible for the cause of death and to limit damage to Anderson’s body pending his funeral.

After the probable cause finding, last January, the commission voted to issue a Final Order stating Dr. Siebert would participate in a Quality Assurance Plan with direct and indirect supervision provided by Dr. Barbara C. Wolf for the duration of his tenure as the District 14 Medical Examiner. On Feb. 8, the Final Order was filed and became effective.

Dr. Wolf, a forensic pathologist is the deputy chief medical examiner in West Palm Beach County and former director of the New York State Police Medicolegal Investigation Unit.

At Dr. Nelson’s request, Dr. Wolf was present before the commission in June to report on the status of Dr. Siebert’s supervision. She reported that it was apparent that there were some areas in which Dr. Siebert needed guidance.

Dr. Nelson asked Dr. Wolf how many autopsies she had observed Dr. Siebert perform. She stated it had not worked out as well as she had hoped. Although she had seen him perform autopsies prior to the QAP, since the plan was implemented she had only observed Dr. Siebert perform two traffic accident autopsies. Both were before the Final Order was issued. Subsequent to the Final Order, she had not observed any of his autopsies.

Dr. Wolf informed the Commission of her ongoing request to observe a criminal case and her ability to be in District 14 on short notice. However, Dr. Siebert had yet to call her to observe a criminal case. She would still like to observe how Dr. Siebert handles evidence. Dr. Wolf also stated the District 14 office would likely be able to gain NAME accreditation with only an updating of the policy and procedure manual.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, commission member, had asked Dr. Wolf if Dr. Siebert had resisted supervision. Dr. Wolf said at the beginning there was a, “difference in understanding” concerning what Dr. Siebert believed her role to be, and what she believed her role to be. Her understanding was acting as a supervisor and he thought she was there for routine quality assurance. Due to this “misunderstanding,” Dr. Wolf stated there was a lag in starting the supervision.

Crist had asked the commission not to include in its review Siebert’s autopsy report of Anderson because he said that any investigation of the case might impede an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by Hillsborough state attorney Mark Ober, a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush following the removal of former FDLE commissioner Guy Tunnell’s removal from the case.

The Siebert autopsies reviewed dated back to August 2003, when Siebert left Pinellas County to become medical examiner in Bay County which is located in Florida’s Panhandle, including a 2004 autopsy report in which he said that a woman who died in Hurricane Ivan had “unremarkable testicles”. The commission said that Siebert used “canned” autopsy reports, seemingly using a template and the same terminology to detail conditions of organs and body parts instead of individualizing cases.

Siebert also conducted the autopsy of Shawn McMillen who died on Sept. 2, 2001 at age 26 of a gunshot from the gun of a state corrections officer. Tarpon Springs police labeled it a suicide, a determination supported by Siebert who was then Pinellas County medical examiner but Shawn’s mother, attorney Michaela Mahoney, says her son was murdered.

Siebert was also involved in the death of 18-year-old Michael Niesen. Niesen died on July 14, 1977, following an automobile accident in Clearwater. The official report of the Clearwater Police Department says that Niesen was ejected from his vehicle, was found unconscious at the accident scene on Memorial Causeway on July 13, 1977, at 9:50 p.m. by the first responding officer, Mark Cairns. Cairns’ report says that Niesen never regained consciousness and died of head injuries sustained in the accident.

Niesen’s family, his brother John and mother, Mary Riley say the teenager was killed as the result of a retaliatory beating administered by police after Clearwater police officer Ronald Mahoney was fatally injured in the accident after Mahoney initially stopped Niesen to issue him a traffic citation.

Siebert reviewed the Niesen case in 2001 at the request of Pinellas County state attorney Bernie McCabe on direction from the Governor’s office. John Niesen says that Siebert quashed the state investigation of his brother’s death, supporting the finding of the first autopsy that contained an admitted error. Siebert based his opinion on the original autopsy report which attributed the severe head injuries, one a four inch opening and the other a five inch open wound, to surgery. However, the hospital report indicates that Niesen had the head wounds upon his arrival at the Morton Plant emergency room and never underwent surgery. Although the Pinellas County medical examiner’s office later claimed that the statement contained in the original autopsy report is a typographical error, both former District Six medical examiner Joan Wood and current Pinellas ME Jon Thogmartin refused to correct the report. Niesen had filed a complaint against Siebert with the Florida Department of Health.

A third autopsy report, prepared by Dr. Gerald Gowitt, a forensic pathologist of Forensic Medicine Associates Inc. of Decatur, Georgia, says that the head injuries sustained by Michael Niesen likely did not occur as a result of the accident. 12-29-07

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