Former examiner may not attend Escambia trial
An attorney in the case involving allegations of a fatal prison beating
says he learned Friday that Joan Wood won't be testifying.
St. Petersburg Times
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
St. Petersburg Times
October 21, 2002
The process server came to the witness door a dozen times through the months. Sometimes somebody was home but refused to answer knocks. Other times, nobody was home at all.
Neighbors said the witness wasn't staying at her house. At times, she quickly drove up to pick up her mail and then just as quickly drove off.
Forget phone calls. The witness never answered.
That's what attorneys in a major federal case out of Pensacola said they faced last year in trying to subpoena former Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood to give pretrial testimony in a case involving allegations that Escambia County Jail guards fatally beat an inmate.
Wood's disappearance in the year after her September 2000 retirement has become a familiar local story to attorneys who tried to force her testimony in a handful of Pinellas-Pasco cases.
Wood also sometimes consulted for medical examiners in other jurisdictions or law enforcement officers during her tenure.
Wood's whereabouts during much of 2001 has been an issue in a civil lawsuit that accuses Escambia guards of beating Mark Bailey in January 1999. While she was still Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner, Wood was brought in to do one of several autopsies on Bailey shortly after his death.
Todd LaDouceur, an attorney for Bailey's family, said his office tried to serve a subpoena on Wood a dozen times last year, failing each time.
But attorneys representing the guards recently said Wood would testify at trial, which LaDouceur objected to because he said he felt the doctor had "evaded" him.
With the two-week trial scheduled to start Monday, LaDouceur said, defense attorneys told him late Friday that Wood won't testify after all. No explanation was offered.
Defense attorney John Jolly declined to comment. Wood did not return calls for comment.
"Our view is that you can't evade a (subpoena) and then reappear just before trial to say you're now ready to testify," LaDouceur said. "I found it odd that a former public servant would evade testifying in a case in which she isn't even the defendant."
The federal judge in the case might not have allowed her to testify anyway, LaDouceur said. Jolly hadn't listed her as a defense expert witness, so the court might have barred her testimony, he said.
"Once she evades, I think she's kind of out of it," the attorney said.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger said he knows of no additional local case in which Wood's testimony is at issue.
Wood attended a conference of state medical examiners in August in Gainesville, making one of her first public appearances since her forced retirement amid criticism for her reversal on the cause of death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.
Wood's reversal led prosecutors to drop criminal charges against the church.
Wood, 58, said in an interview in August that years of overwhelming job stress led her to fear testifying in court. She said the courtroom caused her to have panic attacks.
But Wood said she thought she put much of that fear behind her, to the point that she had started a consulting business, offering herself as an expert witness for lawyers in criminal or civil cases.
Her fear of testifying was so strong that Wood appeared to dodge subpoenas in several cases, including a Pasco murder case in which a process server went to her home eight times without finding her.
Wood's testimony in the Escambia case appeared to be critical to guards who were never charged criminally, in part because Wood's autopsy linked a cause of death to Bailey's bad heart.
Bailey, 39, had slugged a female guard while in custody on charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.
Numerous guards came to the female guard's aid. According to statements by other inmates, the guards severely beat Bailey.
The Escambia County medical examiner did an autopsy that found Bailey's bad heart caused his death. A second autopsy arranged by Bailey's family concluded that a severe beating was the cause. Wood was brought in to do yet a third autopsy, and her findings backed the guards.
In noting injuries to Bailey's body, she said they were consistent with guards trying to subdue him during a struggle. She said that Bailey's neck was broken, but that it occurred after death as the result of the previous autopsy by the physician hired by the family. An expert retained by the family said the neck was broken during a beating.
After a coroner's inquest, an Escambia judge ruled in 2000 that the guards' actions caused or contributed to Bailey's death. But prosecutors declined to file charges.
O'Gwen King, a second attorney for Bailey's family, said it wouldn't be too disappointing if Wood did testify. Given her record on Scientology, he said, she might benefit his case.
"We can get her on the stand and turn her every which way but loose," he said.