Worth remembering in the sudden revival of interest in Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith are the purported circumstances of this ever-murkier affair: Back when the country was on high terror alert, there was an attempted bombing of a public building, a public employee was attacked, and other public employees were put at risk. So went the apparent scenario.
The public is long overdue a better explanation than the one that's been offered so far by investigators and a host of stand-ins for Smith, Memphis police, and prosecutors.
The person best able to provide that explanation is Smith himself. Why hasn't he done that in a news conference, interview, or other public forum? This is a case which once upon a time gave Memphis police a star turn on America's Most Wanted and was linked in the minds of the fretful to other mysteries involving the drowning death here of Harvard microbiologist Don Wiley and the death in a burning car of Katherine Smith, a public employee involved in providing bogus driver's licenses to Middle Easterners sojourning in Memphis.
Then suddenly a publicity blackout of sorts. Or something resembling amnesia on the part of officialdom and the media. No special security precautions were instituted in public buildings, as far as we know, and police and prosecutors issued no domestic terror updates. Very strange, given the basic premises of the Smith case -- a planted bomb on public premises followed weeks later by an apparent attack which left the medical examiner tied up in barbed wire with a bomb attached to his chest.It was the Unabomber case writ strange.
Now the case is back, in its own right and as a foil for the defense team of convicted cop-killer Philip Workman, which hopes to discredit Smith's testimony at a clemency hearing two years ago. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton did the right thing by pushing for Smith's removal: All things being equal, why not defuse this still-simmering bomb? Medical examiners, like other appointees, come and go. Officials in Washington, D.C., also moved to replace one last week.
There is a certain amount of behavior according to form here. Wharton is a former longtime public defender. We can assume that two decades of challenging the testimony of police and their supporting witnesses does not rub off easily. On the other hand, police, Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons, and Smith's lawyers understandably speak admiringly of his competence and dedication. If Smith's story doesn't hold up, other cases besides Workman's could be challenged.
There is no rush to judgment here, as Smith's lawyers and others have suggested. Reasonable people have had questions about the Smith attack since the night it happened 16 months ago. They haven't gotten many answers. But now, as the hype concerning the case returns and intensifies, it is clearly time for such answers, in the public interest.
What is ordinarily a routine matter -- the announcement of committee assignments on the Shelby County Commission -- became controversial this week as the new chairman, Marilyn Loeffel, was overruled in her efforts to insert her de facto commission ally, former Chairman Walter Bailey, in her former role as chairman of the body's education committee. Republican critics of the move complained that it gave Bailey and putative Vice Chair Deidre Malone, both advocates of school consolidation, disproportionate influence. There is some reason to believe, however, that the real controversy is over internal power machinations on the commission.
Whatever the case, it is probably advisable for Chairman Loeffel to start over and provide that key committee with an ideological balance reflecting the commission's differing views.