O.C. SMITH RECONSIDERED
When he nominated Dr. O. C. Smith as chief medical examiner in 2000, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout praised him for being accessible and available.
Right. And hes a natty dresser with an expensive haircut.
Smith, who favors hospital scrubs and a crewcut, is the focus of one of the biggest cases confronting the medical examiners office since the death of Elvis Presley. But lately hes been more invisible than accessible, handing off cases to an assistant and answering no questions about the bizarre bomb-and-barbed-wire attack on him on June 1, 2002 or the attempted bombing of his office three months earlier.
After initially hyping the case as possibly terrorism (see chronology), police and federal investigators have gone into no-comment mode as a federal grand jury convenes. District Attorney Bill Gibbons issues a cryptic three-sentence statement. Federal investigators say all avenues are still open. The Commercial Appeal cautions against a rush to judgment.
A slow walk to indecision is more like it. Someone puts bombs in a public building and on a public official when the country is on terror alert, elite investigators swarm over the scene, then nothing happens for 16 months. A prominent medical examiner says the case is strange even by his standards.
I must admit I was very, very skeptical when I heard about this, Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County (Pa.) medical examiner and frequent television commentator who has testified in more than 500 murder cases told the Flyer. As a pathologist who has been involved in some controversial matters for 40 years, nobody has ever come close to physically assaulting me or tying me up or beating me up.
Wecht said Smith case investigators had a lot to work with. A tenet of the trade called Locards Principle holds that whenever there is contact between two people, there will be some transfer of some physical substance between them. The more sustained the contact, the greater the likelihood of a physical transfer, Wecht said.
If I bind you and tie this and that around you, that takes some time, he said. You got blood, you got threads, you got hairs. Did they ever find anything they could show came from somebody? There are some questions to be asked.
Wecht does not know Smith but has a connection to him through the Philip Workman murder case. Wecht testified for Workmans attorneys in post-conviction appeals. Smith testified for the prosecution.
Within a few months of the attack on Smith, the Flyer and presumably other local media began to get off-the-record reports of weird goings-on in Smiths office, including one about employees so fearful at work that they were packing pistols. When we tried to check them out with Smith, we were denied access by him and by Shelby County Health Department spokeswoman Brenda Ward.
The sketchy details of the attack itself were so bizarre that we thought half-seriously of trying to recreate it in our office with a bale of barbed wire, an attacker, and a victim. Good sense and fear that we did not have enough mops and buckets to clean up the likely bath of blood prevented this. When we finally got an investigator to talk to us, he said it was indeed strange, but the working theory was still that the Smith attacker was also the office bomber and the author of threatening letters about Smith.
Finally, someone pointed out the elephant at the dinner table last week. Given an opening by Gov. Phil Bredesen, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton acted to remove Smith from office.
Some things about the case came to my attention in the fall of last year, Wharton said. He wouldnt say exactly what or how, but his chief administrative officer is former assistant federal prosecutor John Fowlkes and Wharton is a former public defender.
There was a cloud over a critical player, but I couldnt even say that there was an investigation going on, Wharton said. I was between a rock and a hard place.
He feared that whatever the facts of the Smith case, the Shelby County criminal courts could end up with something like the O.J. Simpson case where police investigator Mark Fuhrman became a big issue.
Considering my long history in the criminal justice system, I have a responsibility to say to the county commission that circumstances have developed that there is a great likelihood that he (Dr. Smith) cannot effectively perform his duties, said Wharton.
When Bredesen delayed the execution of Philip Workman because of a 15-month- old federal investigation in West Tennessee, Wharton felt free to act. He refuses to say whether the information he has indicates a mad bomber or something else, but says it makes little difference as far as the ability of the medical examiner to do his job. A bomb is a bomb, and the mayor said recent events such as the Pennsylvania pizza bomber made him worry about public safety as well as efficient criminal investigations and trials.
Numerous questions remain unanswered. Why did Bredesen and state Atty. Gen. Paul Summers let Workmans execution reach the 11th hour before halting it because of a 15-month-old investigation? What exactly is the relevance to O. C. Smith? And what was the purpose of the attack?
If you really hate a guy and youre really disturbed, whats the point? asks Wecht. If you want to harm or kill him, do it.
Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the Smith investigation for the ATF, said this week the case is very active and part of our everyday life. We don t forget cases after other people do. He said the theory that the same person attacked Smith, planted the bombs in the morgue, and wrote the letters is still a major-league category of the investigation. He said he cannot comment further until someone is charged.
A chronology of the O.C. Smith case
* January 24, 2000: Dr. O. C. Smith, who has worked in the office since
1978 and been running it on an interim basis for six months, is named chief
á March, 2000: Death row inmate Philip Workman is scheduled to be
executed April 6th for killing Memphis police officer Ronald Oliver during
an armed robbery in 1981. But Workmans attorneys present what they say is
new evidence: X-rays of Olivers body which show no evidence of a bullet or
bullet fragment. Smith says he only recently learned of the existence of the
X-rays, which Workman s lawyers had sought without success at trial and
during postconviction appeal. Smith turns them over to the defense team.
á * March 30, 2001: Workman gets an 11th hour stay of execution from the
state Supreme Court which orders another review of the case.
á * April, 2001: Three threatening letters are received by a newspaper
reporter, police office, and private citizen. One letter says The EVIL ONE
is in the body of O.C. SMITH, souless PAWN of the DEVIL, guilty of TWO
MORTAL SINS. Another calls him a LIAR and says he is trying to MURDER
PHILLIP R. WORKMAN, a LAMB OF GOD.
á * November, 2001: A judge reviews Workman s case and rules against him.
Workman is sent back to death row.
á * March 13, 2002: Three bombs are found by a janitor in a publicly
accessible stairwell of the Shelby County Regional Forensic Center, which
includes Smiths office. ATF agents say one of the bombs was capable of
killing several people.
á * June 1, 2002: Smith is attacked outside his office and bound in barbed
wire and tied to a bomb. Smith is not seriously hurt and appears briefly at
a news conference but doesnt take questions. The ATF calls in its elite
National Response Team.
á * June 4, 2002: James Cavanaugh, chief ATF agent in Tennessee, says
Anybody who might know the perpetrator could be in danger. He says the
letters, the bombs, and now the attack show the attacker is growing bolder
and more dangerous.
á * June 5, 2002: Memphis police investigators and bomb squad officers
are interviewed for an episode of the nationally syndicated television show
Americas Most Wanted. Agents say it produces some very interesting tips.
á * August 18, 2002: Were confident we can solve the case, says ATF
agent Gene Marquez. The case is our priority investigation right now. The
ATF says it has evidence linking the attack to the previous bombings and
á * November 8, 2002: ATF agent Cavanaugh tells the Flyer the bomber may
have gone underground like the Unabomber. He provides other details. The
attacker was a lone, fleshy-faced, white man 30-40 years old. He wore
gloves, punched Smith in the stomach and jumped on him, did not carry a gun
or knife, and chained Smith to a window grate in a semi-crucified position
-- all in the space of a few minutes. Why go through these elaborate
histrionics? says Cavanaugh. Its hard to say. Asked if the attack might
have been staged, Cavanaugh says, Ive been a cop too long to not think
that there might be something else. I m open to any angles.
á * September 15, 2003: Nine days before Workman is scheduled to be
executed, Gov. Phil Bredesen grants him a four-month reprieve, citing a
pending federal investigation that started in West Tennessee 15 months ago.
á * September 24, 2003: Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton says he intends to
replace Smith. Initially he cites a statement from DA Bill Gibbons, but
Gibbons denies authorizing any statement about Smith. The next day, Wharton
cites an opinion by the county attorney as grounds for replacing Smith.