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Pathologist’s breakdown jeopardizes Ala. cases

An untold number of criminal cases have been thrown into jeopardy by an Alabama forensic pathologist’s breakdown, according to Associated Press interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dr. Johnny Glenn, the lone forensic pathologist performing autopsies in the poorest part of Alabama, was slipping.

In hundreds and hundreds of cases, he would examine bodies but put aside his notes, never finishing the final reports or filling in the diagrams that are so crucial to death investigations. He was also missing subtle but important clues. At times, he just seemed sad.

But because Glenn worked with virtually no supervision, the extent of the backlog — and exactly what he was going through personally — would not become clear until after he abruptly resigned in 2004.

Documents show Glenn, now 64, is afflicted with dementia, depression so severe that he required shock therapy, and a host of other ailments.

Cases in jeopardy
Now, more than two years after his departure, an untold number of criminal cases have been thrown into jeopardy by Glenn’s breakdown, according to Associated Press interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Problems are coming to light as his old cases wind their way through Alabama courts one by one. Glenn’s incomplete autopsies have complicated at least three murder trials so far.

“Dr. Glenn was not just a colleague; he was a good acquaintance. What happened was a tragedy,” said Dr. LeRoy Riddick, a retired state medical examiner.

The former family doctor went to work in Alabama as a medical examiner in 1999. Stationed in a small office across the street from a sewage treatment plant, Glenn for a time was the only state forensic pathologist performing autopsies in the western third of Alabama, which includes Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, but is mostly a poor, rural region.

He performed hundreds of examinations annually, with no daily help aside from lab technicians.

Showed few symptoms
Glenn, who resembled Santa Claus with his gray beard and silvery hair, was widely considered a good doctor before his problems came to light. To many, he seemed as sharp as ever right up to the end.

But two former colleagues — both speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue — say Glenn’s backlog mounted and the quality of his work declined as he became increasingly depressed. He was battling health problems that included eye infections stemming from cataract surgery, they say.

Compounding Glenn’s troubles, they say, was his inability to pass the exam to become certified by the American Board of Pathology — something that is not required to be a pathologist in Alabama, but is highly desirable.

About three months after Glenn quit, his psychiatrist wrote the department to say he was incapacitated by severe depression that required emergency treatment. He could no longer work or testify in court because of memory loss, records show.

More recently, the psychiatrist reported that Glenn also suffers from dementia, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, diabetes and high blood pressure, among other things.

Citing privacy concerns, state officials would not say what finally led to Glenn’s retirement. Michael Sparks, who became director in February of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, said only that there was “an episode” that “didn’t have anything to do with work.”

Frances Glenn, Glenn’s wife, said her husband cannot answer questions, and she would not comment.

Backlog of incomplete work
After Glenn left, boxes and boxes of unfinished cases were discovered in his office.

“There were several hundred cases unfinished by Dr. Glenn,” said Dr. Jim Lauridson, a former state pathologist who was briefly hired to complete some of Glenn’s cases. “Some of these dated back as far as four years, back to 2001.”

Sparks insisted last month that there were no problems with the quality of Glenn’s work, and “everything he did while he was employed was up to standard.”

Nevertheless, the incomplete files in Glenn’s office have created problems. Among them was the case of Ellis Hinton, whose body was delivered to Glenn’s Tuscaloosa lab in 2004.

There was little doubt someone killed the 83-year-old man: His body was found in the murky Black Warrior River, weighted down by rocks. But how he died was a life-or-death question for Jessica Thomas as she went on trial in the slaying.

If jurors believed Hinton drowned, as Glenn’s initial report indicated, Thomas could easily get the death penalty, since she had confessed to pushing him into the water after a holdup. If they believed the old man was dead before his body went into the water, as the defense argued, life without parole was more likely, because it meant a co-defendant was responsible.

‘A major issue on appeal’
But Thomas’ lawyer argued that Glenn’s autopsy failed to document evidence in Hinton’s lungs to back up the conclusion that the man drowned. A judge refused to admit the autopsy report as evidence, and the jury Feb. 19 convicted Thomas of felony murder rather than a capital crime. She could get life in prison.

In another county, District Attorney Chris McCool won the conviction of Heather Pinion in the murder of Amy Files Fuller, whose remains were found in a well four months after she disappeared in 2001. Pinion was found guilty despite problems with Glenn’s autopsy.

“There weren’t many notes, and there were diagrams that weren’t marked,” McCool said. But the victim “was found at the bottom of a well with ligatures around her neck and a puncture in her side. It was a pretty clear path to figuring out it was murder.”

The incomplete autopsy “is going to be a major issue on appeal,” said Pinion defense attorney Donald Lambert, who has since been appointed to a judgeship.

In 2005, during the capital murder trial of a teenager accused in the shooting deaths of two policemen and a radio dispatcher, a former Glenn assistant struggled to explain Glenn’s notes, at one point trying to describe the wounds of a victim but finding that Glenn’s notes were about another body. The defendant, Devin Moore, was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to die.

Others pick up for McCool said there was no question the victims were shot by Moore, who confessed. “There were some extra legal hoops that I had to jump through, but I was raised on a farm and could have told you how those men were murdered,” the district attorney said.

Heavy workload
Glenn is hardly the first medical examiner to fall behind in his work. Pathologists work in a world where the smells and sights of death are constant, the workload is heavy and funding shortages are common. Backlogs and unfinished autopsy reports are a problem nationwide.

“Unfortunately it’s more common than you’d think, the lack of follow-through when it comes to the final report,” said Bruce A. Goldberger, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

The office where Glenn once worked no longer performs autopsies, because it was inadequate, Sparks said. Other pathologists are still completing cases he left undone.

Sparks is trying to hire two additional pathologists and a chief medical examiner, but funding is tight and Alabama’s starting pay for pathologists is low. Still, Sparks said he no longer wants any state pathologist working on his own.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Johnny Glenn,” he said. “Sometimes you just need to get away from the table. What they deal with all day long, every day, is rough.”