With a frankness that is beguiling and a precision of manner that is reassuring, Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran is making an impression as he leads jurors and spectators through the maze of forensic medical evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial.
The 46-year-old chief medical examiner, born and trained in India, has spent six emotionally charged days on the witness stand in a trial that has captured the nation's attention.
When it comes to the coroner's office, more often than not, attention during the trial has focused negatively on the admitted lapses and errors of Deputy Medical Examiner Erwin L. Golden, who performed the autopsies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
That criticism notwithstanding, many of Sathyavagiswaran's colleagues say the chief medical examiner has been effective in conveying a competence and grace that has done much to rehabilitate the department's image.
He is well-regarded locally and nationally as a pathologist, and that respect was a key factor in his promotion to chief medical examiner in 1992 after having spent 14 years in the coroner's office.
On his appointment, the county's former chief administrative officer, Richard B. Dixon, called Sathyavagiswaran "a top-notch forensic pathologist," and noted that he was certified in a number of different specialties, including forensic pathology, internal medicine, infectious diseases and geriatric medicine.
"In the medical profession, you are supposed to be hot if certified in one," Dixon said.
Sathyavagiswaran inherited an office that was beset with friction, once run by Thomas T. Noguchi, the flamboyant and self-styled "coroner to the stars," who was accused of poor management and lost the job in 1982. Ronald Kornblum resigned as coroner in July, 1990, after a critical audit that showed poor management, failure to maintain sanitary standards and inadequate protection of personal property.
Although the department has had to withstand budget cuts and a reduced work force in recent years, Sathyavagiswaran seems to have captured the devotion of his staff.
In two earthquake-damaged buildings on the grounds of County-USC Hospital, the lab technicians, investigators, secretaries, criminalists and doctors who make up one of the nation's busiest coroner's operations can be found huddled during breaks watching their boss in action.
"There is a TV in the lunchroom and a lot of people are interested in seeing how our doctor is doing," coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said.
Sathyavagiswaran obtained his medical degree from the University of Madras in India and states in his resume that he has personally performed more than 3,000 autopsies.
Sathyavagiswaran lives in the San Gabriel Valley with his wife, a pediatrician in private practice, and a teen-age daughter.
David Campbell, chief of the forensic services division, said Sathyavagiswaran is eliciting favorable comment from outside the department for his presentation, which many see as an unaffected, direct style that works well in engaging the attention of jurors in testimony that is complex and highly charged.
And he noted that the coroner's office often plays a complex role in criminal trials. "It's difficult because our position is neutral; we are not pro-prosecution or pro-defense," he said. "Our job is to present a medical interpretation of the evidence."
Although Sathyavagiswaran has yet to undergo what is expected to be a rigorous cross-examination, many of his colleagues believe he has weathered the demands of his role well.
"To be up there [six] days in a row is just overwhelming," said San Diego's chief medical examiner, Brian Blackbourne. "In a usual homicide case you may be on the witness stand one or two hours at most. This has got to be a very stressful, grueling thing."