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Cuts Both Ways

The deputy medical examiner gets probed.


Thomas Gill came to work as Jackson County's deputy medical examiner, doing autopsies and lab work, in November 2002. After 21 months, it didn't surprise him to see his face on the evening news last week, just like he had 3 years ago in Northern California. He keeps a folder of documents ready for reporters who demand that he explain the dark spots in his past.

It happened again on July 14, after Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders publicly asked that Gill be kept out of Sanders' courtrooms.

In 2001, Gill was the Sonoma County prosecutor's star witness against Louis Pelfini, a wealthy and well-known physician whose wife, Janet, was found dead on November 7, 1999. The Pelfinis had argued about Janet's heavy drinking on their way home from a party, according to a couple who had shared a limousine with them. Later that night, Louis Pelfini called 911 to report that his wife had committed suicide by sticking her head in a bucket of water.

Death by bucket was a satisfactory explanation for the Sonoma County sheriff's office. No one photographed the crime scene, and Janet Pelfini's body was whisked away to be examined by Gill the next morning.

Gill was one of five forensic pathologists working for the Forensic Medical Group, a company contracted by the sheriff's department to do Sonoma County's autopsies. He discovered that Janet Pelfini's lungs contained no water, ruling out drowning. There were also injuries around her mouth, indicating that someone had held something over her face, smothering her.

Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins brought a murder charge against Pelfini. Without crime-scene photos, though, the case rested on Gill's testimony as an expert witness.

Pelfini's defense lawyer, Chris Andrian, hired a private investigator to look into Gill's background for anything that might undermine his credibility. The investigator discovered that Gill had been arrested for drunken driving on his way to work at an Indianapolis coroner's office in August 1994 and that Indiana's medical licensing board had suspended Gill's license and ordered him to undergo treatment for alcohol abuse. When the news became public, Gill was fired.

Gill moved to Los Angeles and worked for a coroner's office there, where he continued treatment for alcoholism. The job was temporary because Gill lacked certification as a forensic pathologist; seeking that certification, he discovered that the state board required a documented 3-year period of sobriety before a doctor who had been disciplined could take the exam. The Los Angeles coroner's office offered Gill a fellowship position to work toward his certification, and Gill and his wife stayed there until the end of July 1998. But big-city living had never been their preference, Gill says, so they moved to Sonoma County, where Gill went to work for the Forensic Medical Group. There, he earned his board certification.

The prosecutor in Sonoma County anticipated that Gill would have to defend his history of alcohol abuse on the stand. He wanted Gill to be prepared, so Gill attended sessions with a speech consultant, who videotaped Gill as he practiced answering questions. Gill watched himself on the tapes to improve his delivery.

In court, Andrian revealed that workers had discovered Gill passed out after hours at the coroner's office in Indianapolis. Midtrial, Andrian learned about the video rehearsals and got a court order to view them. On the tapes, Gill looked uncertain and easily manipulated; at the direction of the prosecutor, he memorized specific answers, even though he wasn't positive they were true.

Realizing that their case against Pelfini was irreparably damaged, prosecutors asked that the judge dismiss it; he agreed. Gill kept his job with the Forensic Medical Group, but the details of his past and of the Pelfini fiasco surfaced in courtrooms again and again -- though to his knowledge no subsequent court cases were lost because of him. Nonetheless, Gill was eager to apply for an opening in Kansas City.

Andrian tells the Pitch he was surprised to hear that the medical examiner's office here was giving Gill a second chance. His credibility will always be subject to questioning, Andrian says.

When he came to Kansas City to interview with Jackson County Medical Examiner Thomas Young, Gill says, he was candid about his past -- and Young already knew about it. But when Young read accounts of the Pelfini trial, he saw Gill not as a man who had botched a case but as a man who'd had a botched case fall into his lap.

Gill was just trying to cooperate and do his job, Young says. "When they [prosecutors] end up getting very, very embarrassed and end up with egg on their face, they decide to turn to a scapegoat. And a very, very convenient scapegoat in this case is Dr. Gill."

After a lengthy review of the Pelfini trial, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer determined that there was no evidence that Gill had falsified his testimony to support the prosecutor's case. Further, Lockyer noted that prosecutors are ethically responsible for preparing their witnesses before they take the stand.

Young sees Gill's past as an asset to his character. "Dr. Gill has made some mistakes and paid for them, done everything he can possibly do to get his life back in order, and he has been very successful in that. I've observed 21 months of that success," he says.

Gill says people in recovery make better witnesses. "There's a lot of self-delusion involved in alcohol and substance abuse," he says, before quoting from recovery literature: "You have to start telling yourself the truth before you can start telling the truth to others."

That matters little to Jackson County Prosecutor Sanders, who last Wednesday wrote a letter to Young asking that Gill not be allowed to take the stand during any cases that Sanders' office prosecutes.

"As I know you are aware," Sanders wrote, "criminal procedure obligates my office to disclose such information to the defendant in the event Dr. Gill would be called upon to testify on the part of the State. Such a scenario may compromise successful prosecutions."

Sanders says that if he had been prosecutor when Young hired Gill, he would have tried to prevent it.

Young insists that there have been no complaints about Gill's work for Jackson County. Gill estimates that he has testified in thirty Missouri cases, though only five of those were in regard to autopsies he had performed. Because it takes about a year for many cases to come to trial, his testimony has mostly described the work of his predecessor.

That Sanders has questioned Gill's integrity less than three weeks before the August 3 primary, in which Sanders faces two opponents, makes Gill and Young suspect that Sanders' motive is political.

Sanders' office has known about Gill's history since Gill took the job, says John Liebnitz, Sanders' spokesman. Liebnitz says Sanders has decided to take action now because cases involving Gill's own work are beginning to come to trial.

Others aren't convinced. "This is clearly political," says Ken Evans, spokesman for Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, who as Young's boss was the only one who could have prevented Young from hiring Gill in 2002. (The simmering animosity between Sanders and Shields was made publicly obvious earlier this year when Sanders accused Shields' office of mismanaging funds from the COMBAT anti-drug tax.) If Sanders rallies prosecutors from the other counties where Gill could be called as a witness (Lafayette, Cass, Clay, Platte and Clinton counties don't have medical examiners of their own), as he has threatened to do, it could reflect badly on Shields if Young refuses to budge.

The possibility of defense attorneys questioning Gill's credibility came up before a Clay County murder trial that ended in May. There, Clay County Prosecutor Don Norris subpoenaed Young to testify in Gill's place, which he'll do in future cases as well. "I had meetings with Dr. Young a year ago," Norris says. "I was given the assurance it would not be a problem in any of my cases."

Gill says that although it's normal for a prosecutor to work closely with the medical examiner's office, Sanders has communicated with Young only in writing or by sending representatives from his office.

"I'm just a Johnny-come-lately. I'm not in the inner circles," Gill says. "But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that there is, in approximately 3 weeks' time, an election, and it seems to me he [Sanders] has some kind of political motivation. I think that's a problem here, and that I am once again caught in the middle."

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