Why Technicalities Matter

Interesting story in the news today:

Dr. Johnny Glenn, the lone forensic pathologist performing autopsies in the poorest part of Alabama, was slipping.

In hundreds and hundreds of cases, he would examine bodies but put aside his notes, never finishing the final reports or filling in the diagrams that are so crucial to death investigations. He was also missing subtle but important clues. At times, he just seemed sad.

But because Glenn worked with virtually no supervision, the extent of the backlog — and exactly what he was going through personally — would not become clear until after he abruptly resigned in 2004. . . .

Now, more than two years after his departure, an untold number of criminal cases have been thrown into jeopardy by Glenn’s breakdown, according to Associated Press interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys. Problems are coming to light as his old cases wind their way through Alabama courts one by one. Glenn’s incomplete autopsies have complicated at least three murder trials so far.

The News is right that part of the blame for this belongs with DFS allowing Glenn to work “alone and unsupervised.” The primary cause, though, is that Glenn probably never had to testify about his own work because Alabama courts have routinely allowed autopsy reports into evidence without requiring as a predicate the testimony of the physician who performed the autopsy.

That sounds like a petty complaint, but Dr. Glenn’s situation illustrates why it matters. All the report contains is conclusions. It does not have the procedures or reasoning that led to the conclusions. Nor would it explain that the Doc who prepared the report was mentally unstable. For all of that, you would need to cross-examine the Doc.  

In other words, if courts respected the confrontation clause and the hearsay rules, the problems with Dr. Glenn would have come to light years ago.

But they did not. So at best, we now have to question every case in which his work played a role, and at worst there are some folks in jail who ought not be there.

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