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Coroner's Office a Prime Target of Simpson Defense : Trial: Work described by deputy examiner who handled autopsies is questioned. His boss calls him 'competent.'

October 02, 1994|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Times has reported that detectives disregarded state law and their own policy by waiting eight hours before notifying the coroner's office about the killings and allowing personnel from that office to inspect the bodies. In a nationally televised interview Wednesday, Police Chief Willie L. Williams conceded that detectives should have called the morgue sooner and that the delay made the coroner's job "more difficult."

Criticism also has been aimed at Golden and his handling of the autopsies. A board-certified forensic pathologist who joined the coroner's office in 1980, Golden has testified in court 700 times and performed 6,500 autopsies, including those on some of the Night Stalker victims and on Kitty and Jose Menendez.

Former colleagues say Golden, who earns nearly $118,000 a year from the county, is a competent deputy medical examiner who does his best in an overworked office.

In 1990, an outside review performed for the county found that the quality of forensic work done by the office was "surprisingly high" despite bad morale, marginal facilities and a workload that exceeded a recommended 300 autopsies annually per physician. The workload hasn't improved and deputy medical examiners continue to average 400 autopsies a year, just to keep pace with a caseload that includes 8% of the nation's homicides.

"It is just an assembly line--cut the body open, make a guess and get it going on its way," said a former death scene investigator who asked not to be identified.

"I usually felt rushed when I was there," said a former deputy medical examiner who left the office in the late 1980s. "I started out doing 600 autopsies a year, then down to 500 a year. When I left, I was down to 450 to 475 a year, but a third of those were homicides"--the most difficult to perform.

The former employee said work was further complicated by "crowded, antiquated and depressing" conditions in which doctors compete for operating tables, vie for the attention of assistants and deal with a backlog of bodies stored in the hallways. On a recent visit, the former pathologist noted that things had gotten worse--leaks in the roof, crumbling plaster and a bad odor.

Defense attorney Leslie Abramson likens the coroner's office to "a Model T jalopy going down the road." She said Golden "knows how to drive but isn't given all of the equipment."

Abramson, who defended Erik Menendez in his first murder trial, which ended in a hung jury, said Golden is honest and capable, despite differences she has had with him in court. She won an acquittal in the so-called Blak and Bloo nightclub murders, in part, by calling in an expert to dispute Golden's opinion that one of the murder victims could have moved after a bullet tore through his aorta, records and interviews show.

She said Golden's real problem is how he comes across. "Dr. Golden is not smooth, slick or overly articulate," she said.

His behavior outside the courtroom came to public attention when, a few weeks after grueling testimony in Simpson's preliminary hearing, he allegedly waved something that looked like a gun in the lobby of the coroner's office and, according to police, said words to the effect of: "This is all you need to take out six or seven lawyers!"

Police investigated, but the city attorney did not charge Golden because authorities believed he meant it as a joke and could not determine whether the object was a real gun or a prop.

A coroner's spokesman denied that Golden ever made fun of corpses, as in the incident described by the homicide detective, but said some employees often adopt a gallows humor to cope with the gruesome nature of their jobs.

"There are times when there is a levity involved," said spokesman Scott Carrier.

Carrier also said millions of television viewers may have "gotten the wrong impression" about Golden because his "movements . . . and answers in court" betrayed nervousness from being in the glare of the Simpson case spotlight.

But, based on his own testimony, some forensic experts fault Golden for what he says he did in the autopsy room. They believe he failed to perform some important tests or save evidence that may be crucial in the Simpson case, deficiencies that reflect on the coroner's office in general.

Simpson defense attorney Robert L. Shapiro attacked Golden's credentials by noting that the curriculum vitae he submitted to court was three-quarters of a page, listed no academic appointments and showed he had co-authored one four-page article in the last five years. Golden said he gives "intramural" lectures to his colleagues. The coroner's office declined to release Golden's resume to The Times.

In comparison, better-known medical examiners such as Werner U. Spitz of Michigan, author of a widely used text for forensic pathology, and Boyd Stephens of San Francisco have resumes listing pages of work experience, professional lectures, publications and service with professional associations.

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