Friday, February 4, 2005

CSI Memphis

Former county medical examiner O.C. Smith goes from sleuth to suspect.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Next up in the continuing chronicles of rowdy Memphis: "CSI Memphis," the curious case of the bombed-and-bound medical examiner, wherein former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith plays the suspect instead of the sleuth.

Smith goes on trial in federal court on February 7th, 31 months after he told police he was attacked outside his office by an unknown person who threw something in his face, wrapped him in razor wire, and placed a bomb around his neck. Investigators concluded that Smith staged the attack. He was indicted last February 10th. Now federal prosecutors face the difficult task of explaining to a jury, at least in a general way, how and perhaps why he did it.

"The United States, through more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies, has investigated approximately 112 leads in this case to substantiate the allegation by the defendant ... . Those 112 investigative leads had led to one conclusion, which is the defendant was not attacked by an unknown assailant. The defendant orchestrated and carried out this 'alleged attack' either by himself or with the aid of someone unknown to the United States," according to a government brief filed last year.

Court filings indicate that Smith, whose close-cropped haircut and authoritative testimony have made him a familiar courthouse figure in hundreds of criminal trials, has considered pleading guilty in exchange for leniency but was unable to make a deal.

"The government concedes that defendant and the United States attorney discussed a plea, making that portion of defendant's statement inadmissible," says a brief recapping a critical four-hour interview of Smith on September 11, 2003.

Smith's attorneys have argued that his entire statement on that day is inadmissible, since it was made during plea negotiations.

U.S. district judge Bernice Donald has ruled that part of the September 11th interview can be admitted, and she declined to dismiss the indictment. She will rule this week on a government motion to allow Dr. Park Dietz to testify as an expert witness. Dietz is something of a celebrity because of his testimony in several high-profile cases, including those of John Hinckley, the Unabomber, and the "Son of Sam." One of the many areas of expertise listed on Dietz' Web site is staged crimes.

In a brief, Smith said that on September 11, 2003, he was called by an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms to come to the federal building so agents could "show me some things."

"I was taken to a room with one chair backed up to a counter, facing three more chairs arranged in a semi-circle about the first char," Smith said in the brief. "I initially thought the investigators had obtained new information concerning the (then) recent bomb incident in Erie, Pennsylvania, (which seemed possibly similar to my attack) and/or they were going to show me photo spreads of possible assailants."

Smith was given his Miranda rights and questioned by ATF agents and, at times, by assistant U.S. attorney from Little Rock, Patrick Harris, acting as special prosecutor because Memphis U.S. attorney Terry Harris had recused himself.

According to a transcript of the interview, Harris expressed disbelief in Smith's story and said, "You've just gotten yourself in a bad spot. It's just getting worse. It's, you know, you ought to just be as honest as you can, just cut your losses, and move on, because this has gotten messy and you did it yourself."

Agents continued to press Smith until he said, "You keep asking me for things. Now I'm thinking, you know, what would a lawyer tell me to do right now? Stop here? Talk to you? Tell you what I think we can do? Or just sit there, sit down, and shut up, don't confess or do anything?"

An agent asked Smith, "What would be a scenario that you would like to see this come out?"

"I would like you to find the individual responsible," Smith said.

"You said it yourself the last time we talked," said the agent. "This is a guy that we could offer him help."

"Yeah," said Smith.

"I think we can do that," said the agent.

"What sort of help would that man need?" asked Smith.

"You just said yourself, I'm not a doctor, I don't know," said the agent.

"Yeah," said Smith. "Well, what I'm saying is it would be wonderful."

Later, another agent told Smith that he might still face criminal charges but "nobody is looking to nail you to the wall again. Okay. We just want to resolve it."

Barring further developments, that resolution begins next week.

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