Posts Tagged ‘anthrax’

Anthrax, Dr. Ivins, and the Missing Autopsy

March 29, 2010

On July 27, 2008, Dr. Bruce Ivins, the subject of intense investigation by the FBI in the anthrax poison case of 2001, was found unconscious in his Maryland home.  Removed by ambulance to the hospital, he died there on July 29.  Based on hospital blood tests and police reports, it was concluded that death was caused by an overdose of Tylenol® PM, and that the manner of death was suicide. No autopsy was performed, and the body was promptly cremated. Investigators insisted that evidence showed Dr. Ivins was the anthrax killer, that he acted alone, and that suicide implied guilt.

The lack of autopsy shows a curious lack of curiosity on the part of authorities. Autopsies are performed not only to establish the mechanism and manner of death, but to explore the health, condition and circumstances of the deceased prior to the terminal event.

Given Dr. Ivins’ history of bizarre behavior, the considered opinions of a forensic pathologist, a neuro-pathologist, and a forensic psychologist would have been appropriate. Was Tylenol® the only drug in the blood? Were disease processes present that might have accounted for his bizarre behavior?  If this were truly a case of suicide, was the pressure of scrutiny—rather than guilt—the trigger? Was this a matter of ignoring Sherlock Holmes famous directive “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. …”

On February 19, 2010, the US Department of Justice released a report which, it claimed, proved that Dr. Bruce Ivins, acting alone, committed the anthrax poisonings . The 92 page document (available at http://justice.gov/amerithrax/docs/amx-investigative-summary.pdf) ends emphatically: “Based on the evidence set forth above, the investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 has been concluded.”

But the DOJ report is not evidence. It is a collection of statements and observations made by largely unidentified individuals, whose credibility is not established. Damning interpretations are placed on each of Dr. Ivins’ eccentric actions. Alternative possibilities are simply not considered.

The absence of an autopsy report was not mentioned. The lack of forensic attention in a case of such historic importance inevitably raises reasonable doubt as to the FBI’s conclusion.  Autopsies are routinely done even when the manner of death appears evident. Hospital investigations, orchestrated by personnel with no forensic training have a history of dangerous mistakes. The next post on this blog will delve into cases solved by autopsy.

E. J. Wagner – as always – pursuing verity

Pursuing Verity