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.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A homicide detective walked into the Los Angeles County morgue a few years back and asked Deputy Medical Examiner Irwin L. Golden what he was up to.

Golden, according to the officer, responded by bending over a suicide victim and wrapping the still-attached noose around his own neck. "I'm just hanging around with my friend here," the detective quoted Golden as saying.

Until now, stories about Golden's style and performance have generally stayed within the circle of hardened veterans who work Los Angeles homicides. But as the man who performed the autopsies on Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Golden--rightly or wrongly--now finds himself in the public spotlight focused on the O.J. Simpson murder probe.

Golden has become a target in the defense strategy of attacking virtually everyone who collected, handled or tested more than 240 pieces of physical evidence since the June 12 murders. And for defense attorneys seeking to undercut the government's case, the 15-year veteran of the county coroner's office presents an attractive target--in part because of his on-the-stand demeanor.

He sometimes looked tentative or confused when he testified during Simpson's preliminary hearing in July, several experts noted.

Perhaps more serious, based on his statements on the witness stand, the experts contend he may have mishandled the autopsies.

Although that point will be debated during the trial, records and interviews show Golden made mistakes in an October, 1990, shooting case in which he had the fatal bullet going the wrong way. A judge dismissed murder charges against a suspect in the case after other forensic experts exposed the error, records show.

In light of such difficulties, prosecutors are scrambling to find another pathologist with a national reputation to help with the case. They have been turned down by medical examiners in San Francisco and Miami, officials in those cities say.

Simpson defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said that Golden's competence will be a "real issue" in one of the most closely watched murder cases in history.

"You would think that a case of this high profile, they (the coroner's office) would want to have their very best people," Cochran said. "And if they had their best people on this case, then the citizens of Los Angeles County should probably have some questions."

Golden, 54, declined repeated requests for interviews. But a woman at his Burbank home said the deputy medical examiner "doesn't think he has anything to defend."

"He did his job," she said.

Los Angeles County's chief medical examiner-coroner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, declined to discuss the Simpson case autopsies. He called Golden a "competent" medical examiner.

Defense attorneys routinely attack how police and coroner's offices gather and preserve evidence, especially in murder cases that depend largely on circumstantial evidence and scientific results--such as the Simpson investigation.

Their goal: to create a reasonable doubt in the mind of jurors by implying that evidence has been contaminated, samples confused or the chain of custody broken.

And, being human, detectives, criminalists and medical examiners almost always make mistakes while collecting hair, blood, clothing, gunpowder and other trace specimens amid the chaos and pressure of a crime scene, say former prosecutors.

"Police departments throughout the world, in the investigative process, frequently bungle," said Vincent Bugliosi, the former Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who prosecuted the Charles Manson clan.

In the Manson case, Bugliosi worked around the facts that one police officer had ruined fingerprints on a gun by grabbing it by the handle, while another had lost hair specimens when he dropped the evidence vial and it shattered.

With the case against their client resting heavily on scientific tests, Simpson's attorneys have tried to show similar mistakes in the case against the football great, who has pleaded not guilty.

So far, they have established in court that police used a criminalist trainee to lift some of the most crucial bloodstains at the Bundy Drive murder scene; a crime lab employee mislabeled one blood sample; police left Simpson's white Ford Bronco unattended for a period of time, and, according to Judge Lance A. Ito, a lead detective made "reckless" statements to justify a key search warrant.

Bugliosi said he doubts that any of these miscues will ruin the case. "I expect stuff like this," he said.

But many say the part of the investigation most vulnerable to attack is how authorities handled two of the most important pieces of evidence--the corpses of Nicole Simpson and Goldman.

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.

The 11-page resume for Stephens, who turned down a request from prosecutors to help with the Simpson case, shows that he wrote seven articles and a book chapter in the last five years and has given 51 seminars, meetings or lectures to outside groups since 1987.

During a July 7 preliminary hearing, Golden testified about the autopsies on Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He acknowledged that no rape test was performed on Nicole Simpson. He said it was up to police to request the tests, but Spitz and others say rape kits are routine autopsy procedures in murders involving women.

Golden also testified that he discarded Nicole Simpson's stomach contents, which he examined to help determine the time of death. Experts said he should have saved those contents because they are evidence and subject to further examination. Golden testified that he saved the contents from Goldman's stomach.

And in a particularly tense exchange with Shapiro, the deputy medical examiner conceded that he never matched the wounds on the victims against a knife that police brought to the morgue because they believed it was similar to the murder weapon.

"He asks you to check to see, and you're telling us that you didn't think it was indicated for you to perform a proper evaluation?" Shapiro asked in the July 8 hearing.

"Well, I said it could be, it could be the weapon that caused some of the wounds, including the cutting wounds. It was a single edge, it had a single sharp cutting edge, and it's obviously consistent with many of the slashing wounds, and I, it was a six-inch blade, and, at the time, we didn't think it indicate, or I didn't think it indicated to go through each wound, wound by wound . . . to try to exclude that weapon. That can be done at some other time," Golden said.

"You understand a man is sitting in jail, faced with charges of double homicide, do you not? . . . When would you suggest doing that to protect his rights?" Shapiro asked.

"Now?" Golden replied.

Cyril H. Wecht, former Allegheny County, Pa., medical examiner and past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, called the failure to perform a rape test "unforgivable."

Wecht--who is controversial among medical examiners because he often testifies for the defense--also contended that Golden's failure to match the knife with the wounds on the bodies was the "most serious flaw" in the autopsies.

"The prosecution cannot go to trial with Golden alone," Wecht said. Asked to describe the way the autopsies were performed, Wecht added: "I would use words like 'inadequate,' 'incomplete' and 'scientifically imprecise.' "

Wecht, now a private consultant living in Connecticut, based his comments on court testimony. The Los Angeles coroner's office will not publicly release the autopsy reports for Simpson and Goldman.

His boss has admitted that Golden committed errors in his work after another double homicide: the Oct. 3, 1990, killings of Ronald Gay and Linda Louis Phillips, shot to death while sitting in a car on West 81st Street.

Finding the car's back window shattered and two spent bullets inside, homicide investigators believed that Gay and Phillips had been gunned down from outside the car. Golden's autopsies supported that theory.

Golden concluded that Gay had been shot from a distance. "There was no evidence of close-range firing on the skin surrounding the gunshot entrance wound," Golden wrote in his November, 1990, autopsy.

He also concluded that Phillips died when a bullet entered her right arm, went into her right side and came out through her back, just left of the spine.

He was wrong. Additional forensic tests commissioned by defense attorney Charles L. Linder, who represented a man accused in the murders, showed that Golden had it backward. Phillips had actually been shot in the back, with the bullet coming out through her right arm, court records show.

And as for Gay's wound, Golden made no mention of an abrasion to the upper left of the bullet hole, marks that Linder's experts said indicated a "pressure contact" wound like the kind caused when a firearm is pressed against the skin.

In June, 1993, Superior Court Judge William Pounders agreed to dismiss charges against Linder's client, who had been convicted of an unrelated slaying and is now in prison. After the dismissal, Linder filed court papers outlining scientific evidence showing that Golden committed "significant errors of a critical nature" and that the victims were shot by someone sitting in the back seat, not outside the car. A district attorney's spokeswoman confirmed Friday that prosecutors agreed to the dismissal "in the interest of justice."

The new evidence also prompted Golden to change his mind. "Further review of the autopsy photographs in conjunction with the forensic report authored by (Linder's expert) leads me to conclude that the entrance wound was on the back and the exit on the right arm, having passed from back to front through the chest," Golden wrote in an addendum to the Phillips autopsy on June 21, 1993.

In a written response to questions recently submitted by The Times, Los Angeles coroner-medical examiner Sathyavagiswaran said: "Dr. Golden did make an error when he indicated that the bullet entered through the arm and exited in the back. I agree with opinions that a deputy medical examiner should be able to tell the difference between an entrance wound and an exit wound." He added, however, that certain conditions can make it difficult to do so.

"We all make mistakes, but we deputy medical examiners are always ready to acknowledge our errors and rectify them as indicated by the addendum Dr. Golden issued on the case," he said.

Sathyavagiswaran also said that Golden made a mistake in not discovering the contact wound to Gay and that he has directed Golden to change that autopsy as well--four years after the shooting.

Just how these or any other mistakes might come back to haunt Golden in the Simpson trial is open to question. But defense attorney Cochran said he will attempt to bring the deputy medical examiner's past performance to the jury's attention.

"I think the triers of fact need to know that," Cochran said.

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