Nationally acclaimed pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, hired to assist in the defense of O.J. Simpson, needed no introductions when he arrived in Los Angeles to work on the murder case. He already knew most of the principals working for the defense and prosecution.
The New York City-based forensics specialist worked with Simpson attorney Robert L. Shapiro on the Christian Brando case and first met Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti when he performed a second autopsy on the body of former football star Ron Settles, who died mysteriously in the Signal Hill jail in 1981. Baden has also locked horns at various times with members of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
Along the way, he has worked on some of the most celebrated murder cases in recent history, including the slayings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.
Baden led the 1979 Congress-backed reexamination of evidence in the Kennedy assassination, which supported the original Warren Commission finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. In the King case, Baden disproved a theory that a black powder found on King’s neck was gunpowder. If that contention had been true, it would have meant the civil rights leader was fired on at close range and would have undermined the case against James Earl Ray, who was convicted of killing King.
In the Evers case, Baden conducted a second autopsy 28 years after the civil rights leader was gunned down, and the findings helped convict 73-year-old Byron De La Beckwith, whose two earlier trials resulted in deadlocked juries.
Whether Baden can come up with the same headline-grabbing conclusions in the Simpson case remains to be seen.
So far, he has been tight-lipped about the case, in which he is teamed with another well-known forensic scientist, Henry C. Lee.
Baden’s job will be to examine the positions of bodies, the depth of wounds, coloration around the wounds, the angles of penetration and anything else that contributed to the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman.
If past cases are a guide, Baden probably will be able to determine, on the basis of wounds, which of the victims was struck first, whether the blows were defensive or offensive, whether elements such as self-defense or torture were involved. Baden might also be able to tell whether the first blows were struck to kill, and whether there was an intent to kill both victims or just one.
“We are not here to look for any particular evidence. We are here to find whatever evidence we find,” he said. “This means gathering evidence, and trying to reconstruct, as best as possible, what happened.”
Asked to describe what he does, Baden said: “Our job is to listen to the dead body and let it tell us what happened.”
On June 20, Baden got his first glimpse of the findings of the autopsies performed by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office on the two murder victims.
On June 21, less than 24 hours after picking up the autopsy reports, Baden was in a courtroom in New Jersey, involved in another case.
And the next day, he was back in Los Angeles, going over autopsy reports and crime scene photographs in the coroner’s office.
Such transcontinental case-hoping is nothing new to Baden, 59, a tall man with longish gray hair, a bushy mustache and wire-rim glasses that give him a professorial look. He often handles several cases at once. Still another high-profile case he is working on involves charges against Waneta Hoyt, a New York mother accused of killing five babies and blaming it on sudden infant death syndrome. Baden is working for the prosecutors.
The pathologist estimates that he has presided over 20,000 autopsies in a 32-year career. He works for the New York State Police as director of forensic sciences. But that is only a part-time job, and Baden often works for defense attorneys as an independent pathologist.
The physician’s agreement with the state of New York is that he will never work against state prosecutors in a criminal case, but that he is free to work for defense attorneys outside his home state.
Baden, a former chief medical examiner for New York City, estimates that he works for defense teams about half the time in his private practice.
A colleague, Dr. Cyril Wecht, said he and Baden were testifying in a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., murder case when the New York City pathologist got the call from Shapiro asking him to join the Simpson case. Baden, in the Wilkes-Barre case, was testifying for the prosecution; Wecht was testifying for the defense, not the first time they have locked horns. Wecht, a forensic pathologist and lawyer who works in Pittsburgh, served on the Kennedy committee and took the minority view, arguing against Baden that there was more than one gunman.
Despite those differences, Wecht said in a telephone interview, he has high regard for Baden, calling him bright and very competent.
Baden has had some successes undermining cases presented by Los Angeles County law enforcement authorities.
In the case of Christian Brando, the son of actor Marlon Brando, police accused the defendant of shooting his half sister’s lover to death as the victim lay sleeping on a couch. Brando said the gun went off during a struggle with the victim, Dag Drollet. Baden, called into the case by Shapiro, found that gunshot residue on both of Drollet’s hands could have been caused only if his hands were on top or near the weapon, a finding that supported Brando’s claim. The murder charge against Brando was dropped and he was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter.
As for the Settles case, the coroner’s staff, after examining the football star’s body, supported the contention by Signal Hill police that the young man had hanged himself in his jail cell. After exhuming the body and conducting a second autopsy, Baden said he believed the death was caused by a chokehold administered by police. The family, which had brought Baden into the case, won a large settlement.