Can a medical examiner who is employed by the state serve as an expert witness for private parties? Assuming the state imposes no barrier to outside consulting, the question is whether testifying for private parties might create a conflict of interest.
The potential peril of acting as an expert witness for private litigants is illustrated by a special report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that criticizes Dr. Kris Sperry, the chief medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The AJC investigation accuses Sperry of acting as a “hired gun” who tailors his testimony to suit the needs of the lawyers who pay him.
Since 2003, Sperry has worked on more than 500 cases as a paid forensic consultant, all while being employed fulltime by the State of Georgia. The AJC investigation suggested that Sperry’s outside consulting, which doubles the $184,000 salary he earns from the State of Georgia, undermines his credibility as a witness for the state.
In 2013, Sperry testified as an expert witness for federal prosecutors who accused a former police officer of committing murder by shooting a victim with a sniper rifle. The victim’s body was burned beyond recognition and no bullet was ever found. Without examining the body, Sperry confidently asserted that the victim was shot in the back by a high-powered rifle. Sperry was paid $5,000 for that testimony.
Sperry based his opinion on his review of an X-ray. Although Sperry claimed that “any competent forensic pathologist” would agree with his opinion, four pathologists condemned his opinion as the product of supposition rather than forensic science.
The medical examiner in New Orleans concluded that the X-ray showed metal fragments from the car. According to that expert, no other explanation could account for the missing bullet, which would not have been destroyed by the fire.
Dr. Steven Karch, an Oakland pathologist, said that Sperry was relying on “junk science” to support his opinion. Dr. Jerry Spencer, the former chief medical examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, agreed that no credible medical examiner would base a conclusion that a victim was shot by a high-velocity rifle on an X-ray.
The most prominent of Sperry’s critics in the New Orleans case was Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the medical examiner in San Antonio, Texas. DiMaio is the author of several leading forensic science treatises, including one on gunshot wounds. MiMaio not only disagreed with Sperry’s interpretation of the X-ray, he testified that Spencer’s testimony about entrance and exit wounds and the bullet’s supposed path through the body was insupportable without examining the body.
Credibility and Controversy
Not all of Sperry’s detractors focus on his alleged willingness to tailor testimony to the needs of the lawyers who hire him. An Atlanta television station criticized Sperry a few years ago for contradicting the medical examiners in other states when he testified privately. That criticism was probably unjustified, since Sperry exposed testimony that was arguably slanted to favor the examiners’ employer. That’s exactly what an expert should do, making it all the more ironic that Sperry now seems to be slanting his own testimony to favor the people who hire him.
Prosecutors have been accused of intimidating state medical examiners who act as expert witnesses for criminal defendants. Some prosecutors apparently feel that medical examiners should always be on the side of the prosecution, when in fact they should be on the side of the truth. Science is a process of discovering the truth, even if the truth contradicts a prosecutor’s theory of how a crime was committed.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a state medical examiner doing private consulting for a private party. Testifying for the prosecution, the defense, and civil litigants may help medical examiners retain their independence. On the other hand, there is something very wrong with a medical examiner who departs from objective scientific findings by slanting testimony to favor the party that pays the examiner, particularly when that testimony has no foundation in science.
Sperry testified 13 times for the State of Georgia between 2010 and 2014. During that same period, he testified 42 times for private parties.
Sperry told his boss that he puts in his 40 hour weeks for Georgia and works for private clients during his free time, including his leave time. He also told his boss that he doesn’t recall much about his private work and shreds his files after he is done testifying.