Even prosecutors sometimes wondered about Dr. Ralph Erdmann’s bizarre work habits--after all he once lost a head. But they still used the pathologist’s testimony to send people to prison, some to Death Row.
Erdmann’s recent indictment on charges of falsifying an autopsy and accusations that he performs “made-to-order” autopsies for police have defense attorneys scrambling to see whether his work led to false convictions.
“You are going to hear Dr. Erdmann’s name a lot in the future,” said Steven Losch, attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund-Capital Punishment Project in New York. “I know I will be looking into as many capital murder cases involving Dr. Erdmann as possible.”
Losch said he will review at least 23 of Erdmann’s cases in 41 counties.
Indicative of his efforts, Losch won the right to exhume the body of 72-year-old murder victim Hilton Merriman, claiming that Erdmann botched the autopsy.
In the hearing on their request, Erdmann invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 200 times in response to questions about the autopsy.
In the motion to exhume Merriman’s body, former Dallas County assistant medical examiner Linda Norton was quoted as saying Erdmann routinely performs “made-to-order autopsies that support a police version of a story.”
Norton said some of Erdmann’s findings are “so wrong as to be an insult to the intelligence of an average human being.”
Erdmann, 65, was indicted in February by a Hockley County grand jury on charges of falsifying an autopsy on a 41-year-old man. A few weeks later, he resigned his $140,000-a-year job performing autopsies for Lubbock County, saying he was overworked.
Erdmann said he performed an autopsy on the 41-year-old man in which he weighed the man’s spleen. But family members asserted that the spleen had been removed several years before.
The state then indicted Erdmann on charges that he billed the county $650 for the autopsy, which it said he never performed. An investigation showed that the body was never cut open.
Erdmann, who faces 20 years in prison if convicted, said he simply erred by not sending the county the correct documents.
“I tried to apologize, but they wouldn’t let me. I made a mistake,” he said.
For years, defense attorneys and prosecutors have had reservations about the doctor, who showed up in Childress, Tex., in 1981 and began a service of performing autopsies two years later.
“Some of his work habits are strange,” said Randall County Dist. Atty. Randy Sherrod, who has used Erdmann as a witness in several murder cases. “He doesn’t know his left from his right. He’ll take his 13-year-old child to an autopsy. He has a fascination with carrying around body parts and storing some in his refrigerator.”
But Sherrod added, “I have never seen a case where Dr. Erdmann did anything illegal to deceive a judge or jury. There is no evidence to show Dr. Erdmann sent innocent people to the penitentiary.”
Lubbock County Dist. Atty. Travis Ware also stands by Erdmann, saying the doctor is being attacked by vengeful defense attorneys.
Erdmann’s predicament has been complicated by the revelation that his wife, Joan, received at least $17,000 over the last two years for bone and tissue from bodies examined by Erdmann, according to records obtained by Millard Farmer, Losch’s co-attorney with the Legal Defense Fund project.
Check stubs from Allo Materials, a bone distribution company, show that Joan Erdmann received $200 for every human corpse supplied for bone and skin donations by her husband’s county office.
“I would say that might suggest a conflict of interest,” Farmer said.
Allo Materials president Stan Leffew has said there is nothing improper about the payments.
Sgt. Snow Robertson of the Odessa Police Department is still confused as to how Erdmann lost the head of a suspected murder victim.
Erdmann said he removed the head from the body and sent it to Austin to have it reconstructed by a forensic artist, Robertson said.
“The people in Austin said they never got it,” he said. “The head is lost. Nobody ever finds the bullet wound, or the proper cause of death and the guy walks on a murder charge.”