Friday, February 11, 2005

Why Didn't You Shoot The Guy?

Testimony begins in the trial of former medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2005 at 4:00 AM

In addition to mystery, violence, barbed wire, bombs, and bizarre religious overtones, the federal case against former Shelby County medical examiner Dr. O.C. Smith has its own name: factitious victimization.

In layman's language, that means making up a story in which you are the victim. Prosecutors think that's what Smith did when he was supposedly attacked on June 2, 2002, outside his office. On Tuesday, they gave the jury a preview of what's to come, including pictures of Smith wrapped in barbed wire, videotaped excerpts of Smith talking to investigators and prosecutors, and a parade of dueling expert witnesses.

Smith, 52, is charged with unlawful possession of a bomb and making two false statements to investigators about his "attack." U.S. attorney Bud Cummins, who normally works out of Little Rock but took the case because the Memphis office recused itself, told the jury Smith told investigators his alleged attacker taunted him after putting a motion-sensitive bomb over his head and chaining him to a window grate:

"Push it, pull it, twist it and you die. Welcome to death row."

Bomb specialists delicately lifted the device -- a can containing explosives and wax -- and disabled it with a powerful blast from a water hose. The jury saw pictures of Smith, wearing blue hospital scrubs, lying on a hospital bed a few hours later with strands of barbed wire still wrapped around his head. Other pictures showed bright red sores or bruises on the right side of his face, purportedly from having a lye solution thrown in his face twice by the assailant. He also had small scars on his leg and chest, but prosecutors said the damage would have been worse if Smith really tangled with an angry attacker.

One of the things that led them to suspect Smith of staging the attack, in fact, was Smith's rugged appearance, familiarity with weapons, and military background. Cummins suggested the alleged attacker "got awful lucky that night" because Smith, according to his own account, did not resist beyond swinging at him and missing.

"Why didn't you shoot the guy?" investigators asked Smith, known to many of them as a colleague and gun-toting tough guy with a knife in his high black boots.

Cummins said Smith told them he had left his gun on his coffee table at home.

Finding the assailant was the number-one priority of Memphis federal prosecutors in the summer of 2002, less than a year after the terrorist attacks in New York. Seventeen law-enforcement agencies followed up on 112 leads, according to prosecutors. All ultimately led to the "reluctant conclusion" that Smith wasn't telling the truth, Cummins said.

"We won't prove what actually happened that night," said Cummins. "We don't have to prove a motive."

Still, Cummins introduced the jury to the term "factitious victimization," which he called "a mental disorder." He warned that the government will be introducing some "unflattering" evidence about Smith's personal life in the trial expected to last two or three weeks.

Smith's attorney, Jim Garts, said "a picture is worth a thousand words, and you're asked to believe that Dr. Smith did this to himself" as he flashed a photograph of Smith's red and swollen face hours after the incident.

"Nothing links Dr. Smith to this crime even though they've made every effort to do it," Garts said, adding that the case "is built on the power of suggestion."

The jury of eight women and four men appeared intently interested in the eye-opening statements and photographs. Smith, wearing a light-colored suit, still wears his trademark short haircut and frequently takes notes.

In yet another strange twist, the first witness called to the stand was Robert Hutton, an attorney who less than a week ago was in a different federal courtroom in the same building defending football booster Logan Young Jr. in another highly publicized case. Hutton also represented convicted cop-killer Philip Workman. The Smith yarn began with three strange letters to Hutton, Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons, and Commercial Appeal reporter Larry Buser in 2001, in which references were made to the Workman case and Smith -- as in, "the evil one is in the body of Dr. O.C. Smith, soulless pawn of the devil." Smith, on his own initiative, gave testimony supporting Workman's conviction at a clemency hearing.

Buser, a veteran courtroom reporter, was also called as a witness but had not testified by press time Tuesday. U.S. District Court judge Bernice Donald ruled that a news story Buser wrote about Smith in 1998 would not be allowed into evidence.

Smith served in the Navy and joined the medical examiner's office in 1983 as an assistant. He was named chief medical examiner in 2000.

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