Posts Tagged ‘Ivins’

Discovered at the Autopsy

May 6, 2010

Forensic history is rich with cases in which the manner of death (natural, accident, homicide or suicide) seemed obvious, but in which post mortem examination established a very different conclusion.

A few that spring to mind:

In 1978, Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident and journalist who worked in the UK, was rushed to a London hospital with what appeared to be a raging infection. Despite sophisticated and attentive treatment he expired.  At post mortem, a pellet was recovered from his buttock. It was determined to have contained the powerful poison ricin, The pellet had evidently been injected by an assailant Markov had encountered while waiting for a bus. The motive for the crime was political.

In Chicago of 1982, the sudden death of a twelve year old—thought to be a natural death caused by a stroke—was eventually discovered by a medical examiner to be the result of cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules.

Dr. Michael Swango, a medically trained serial poisoner, aroused suspicion in 1984, early in his career, when a patient observed him tampering with an IV line. The Ohio hospital which employed Swango investigated and announced they found “no cause for alarm,” thus leaving the doctor free to continue his unsavory career for many years. He traveled widely, eventually arriving on Long Island, where he continued to ply his trade. The evidence establishing his guilt was collected by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner from a number of exhumed bodies, whose physicians had believed their deaths due to disease, and had signed death certificates to that effect.

In 1678 the English magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was embroiled in an intense political dispute. When his body was found on Primrose Hill in London, impaled upon his sword, his demise was assumed suicide due to great emotional distress. A post mortem, by two surgeons, however, disclosed that Godfrey had been strangled, and that the sword had been inserted after death.

If a thorough post mortem was thought important in a high profile case in 1678, why was a similar examination not considered appropriate in the matter of Bruce Ivins? Particularly when Dr. Ivins remains were to be cremated?

Questions persist. Was Dr. Ivin’s bizarre behavior due to disease? Undiagnosed strokes? Incipient Creutzfeldt-Jakob? Drugs other than Tylenol? If this was indeed suicide, was it due to guilt? Or to a sick human being badgered to death.

Without the post mortem, there are major pieces missing from the investigation. There are many reasons to have done a complete autopsy in the Ivins case. It is hard to think of a good reason not to.

Autopsy means “to see for oneself.” Why didn’t we get the chance?

E. J. Wagner – as always – pursuing verity

Pursuing Verity

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