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County Prosecutors Withheld Evidence About Doctor’s Credibility

A defense attorney has requested a new trial in a shooting case because prosecutors did not turn over information about forensic pathologist Thomas Gill

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Dr. Thomas Gill at the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office in Kansas City, Mo., in 2004. Solano County, Calif., where Dr. Gill performed autopsies while working for Forensic Medical Group, is now reviewing more than two dozen homicide cases in which Dr. Gill performed the autopsies. (Michael McClure)

Officials in Solano County, Calif., have discovered that prosecutors long had evidence of a local forensic pathologist’s error-riddled career and that, in at least one homicide case, failed to give defense attorneys potentially exculpatory evidence.

California Watch’s Ryan Gabrielson reports that the Solano County District Attorney’s Office has, “for years,” had two computer discs chronicling Dr. Thomas Gill’s 20-year history of mistakes and misdiagnoses.

Until December, Gill worked for Forensic Medical Group Inc., a private autopsy firm that holds contracts to perform death investigations for more than a dozen jurisdictions in Northern California.

Last month, Solano County officials began reviewing more than two dozen homicide cases in which Gill performed autopsies after stories published in February by ProPublica, PBS “Frontline,” NPR, California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley described the doctor’s troubled past.

At least one defense attorney has already filed a motion requesting a new trial for a client convicted of shooting a 23-year-old man in June 2008. The crux of that filing rests on the 1963 Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to give defendants evidence that may help their defense.

In 2003, a state appellate court overturned a Los Angeles man’s murder conviction after finding that prosecutors there had withheld evidence that could have undermined an L.A. County doctor’s credibility at trial. The forensic pathologist in that case testified that Jose Salazar had killed an 11-month-old girl by crushing her head. In 2005, the state Supreme Court upheld Salazar’s conviction after determining that the doctor’s testimony was not “material” because it “was not the only evidence linking [him] to the crime.”

i live in shasta county and dr. susan comfort is our county coroner.  i read your article, with interest, that she is employed by the county of solano as their coroner.  i don’t see anything wrong (i guess) with dr. comfort having two jobs, but i do think it is ridiculous when she can’t perform her own work here in shasta county and it has to be farmed out to medical forensics lab (i believe is the name).  anyway, i read your article shortly after our newspaper did an article about how expensive it is to have this forensic group do our autopsies. my first and most obvious question was why can’t our coroner do her job?  then i read your article and found the reason why - she isn’t here, she’s somewhere else doing a job. so i wrote to the local newspaper, which is far from reliable and llistens to the scanner for their news, rather than send someone out to investigate anything, and below is the reply i received from them.  can you verify that dr. susan comfort IS the same coroner that sheriff stanton was talking about?  thank you so much for your time.

RE: News Tip [#330]               
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Sabalow, Ryan to me, Maline, Bruce
show details 5:45 PM (14 hours ago)
Pam,
Thanks for passing this on. I checked with the coroner’s office and it appears the ProPublica reporter made a mistake with the doctor’s name.

Dr. Comfort has worked continuously for the Shasta County Coroner’s Office for the last few years. She did do a stint in Humboldt County back in the late 90s or early 2000s, but she came back. She’s been here ever since.

From: Hazle, Maline
Sent: Thursday, February 24, 2011 4:20 PM
To: Sabalow, Ryan
Subject: FW: News Tip [#330]



From: MachForm [mailto:no-reply@rsadmin.webfactional.com]
Sent: 2/24/2011 4:01 PM
To: Hazle, Maline; Ferguson, Carole; Chapman, Michael; Skropanic, Jessica
Subject: News Tip [#330]

Name:
pam veach
Daytime phone:
(530) - 241 - 1982
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Type of information:
Story Suggestion
Your News Tip or Story Suggestion:
this article says dr. comfort was employed by solano county in 2010. your paper records her as our coroner since at least 2008. is this the same group? should we be having autopsies done by this group re-evaluated? was dr. gill involved in any of our autopsies? how interesting that he has had legal trouble before, and she was under his tutelage? maybe this needs to be journalistically investigated further. i would love to see what you could do with this and potential legal problems in our county. contact the da’s office?
Post Mortem Death Investigation in America; California County Opens Review Into Autopsies by Doctor With Checkered Past by Ryan ___________________________________________
Gabrielson, Special to ProPublica 2/24/11, _______________________________

Dr. Thomas Gill at the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office in Kansas City, Mo., in 2004. Solano County, Calif., where Dr. Gill performed autopsies while working for Forensic Medical Group, is now reviewing more than two dozen homicide cases in which Dr. Gill performed the autopsies. Officials in Solano County, Calif., are reviewing more than two dozen homicide cases in which Dr. Thomas Gill, a forensic pathologist with a 20-year history of errors and misdiagnosed causes of death, performed autopsies.
The review was prompted by stories published earlier this month by ProPublica, PBS “Frontline” and NPR, in partnership with California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, that described Gill’s troubled career. In collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, NPR: Flawed Autopsies Send Two Innocent Men To Jail by Coburn Dukehart, NPR, Feb. 2; NPR: Parents Fight To Find Truth Behind Daughter’s Death by Sandra Bartlett, NPR, Feb. 1; Frontline: Death Investigation 101; Frontline, Feb. 1

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Post Mortem

Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America

A year-long investigation into the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices uncovered a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

The Story So Far

In TV crime dramas and detective novels, every suspicious death is investigated by a highly trained medical professional, equipped with sophisticated 21st century technology.

The reality in America’s morgues is quite different. ProPublica, in collaboration with PBS “Frontline”  and NPR, took an in-depth look at the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

More »

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