ABC Action News

Medical examiner's apparent mistakes put man in jail

an ABC Action News report 11/21/02

HOLIDAY - Joan Wood was the medical examiner for Pinellas and Pasco counties for 18 years, until she was forced to retire two years ago when prosecutors charged her with mishandling a sensational murder case involving the Church of Scientology. That case made national news after Wood reversed her decision on the death of Lisa McPherson, who died in the church's care.

Now, ABC Action News investigator Mike Mason has found Wood made some more big mistakes, ruining the lives of at least two fathers: John Peel and David Long.

For the Long family, little Rebecca was the light of their lives. Born prematurely, she had serious health problems. One day, her tiny body simply shut down.

"I heard that she stopped crying and went to check on her to make sure if she was okay, and that's when I found out she was face down and she wasn't breathing, unfortunately," David recalled.

The Longs took her to the hospital, but it was too late.

"They let me hold her the last half an hour, she died in my arms at 10 after eight," added Theresa Long. "And that was our last moments with her."

The next day, David was informed he was a suspect in his daughter's death. The chief medical examiner at the time, Joan Wood, determined Rebecca was murdered -- a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome - a claim he denied.

When detectives interviewed David, even they did not believe it. Still, Wood insisted it was murder.

The Longs' lives were turned upside down by Joan Wood's apparent mistakes.
"In your heart of hearts, did you believe he killed this baby?" Mike Mason asked.

"No sir, I did not," replied detective Jeff Bousquett.

Detective Bousquett wanted a second opinion, and he got one from Wood's replacement, Jon Thogmartin.

"I made sure the state attorney knew there were problems with the case," Thogmartin stated.

Thogmartin and four other pathologists all determined Rebecca died of bronchial pneumonia.

David Long's attorneys are suing the state of Florida. He had to spend 49 days in jail before his murder charges were dropped.

"Just to blow it like that without getting your facts right and missing pneumonia in the child is unforgivable, it really is," attorney Allen Gross insisted.

To this day, Joan Wood has refused to speak about the case.

"I'm sorry, but I can't comment about that case at this point in time," she said, when confronted by Mike Mason.

According to several experts, Wood's autopsy report is plagued with problems. There are discrepancies with the medical findings, and there is not a shred of evidence to prove Baby Rebecca was even abused.

"Rebecca Long did not have trauma," Thogmartin told Action News.

Joan Wood did not want to comment on the Longs' case, or anything else.
In Joan Wood's report, she wrote the brain has "no distinct areas of hemorrhage," but in the next paragraph, she contradicts that statement, claiming, "the brain has...hemorrhage."

The report goes on to state Rebecca had retinal hemorrhaging, bleeding in the eyes, which is caused when a baby is shaken. However, Thogmartin and four other pathologists found there was no evidence of that.

Wood also made the mistake of listing Rebecca as a baby boy.

Despite all of that, prosecutors charged David Long with first-degree murder, a stigma that remains on his record. He lost his job as a computer operator and had to file for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, Joan Wood has gone on to open up her own practice as a medical consultant.

"Unfortunately, she can retire or open her own practice, and I don't understand what the deal is. That, to me, is not a very lawful thing," David said.

"Joan Wood needs to step up to the plate and acknowledge the mistakes she made when she was there, and this is obviously one of the biggest she made during her time," insisted attorney Karen Maller.

David Long's attorneys are in the process of getting murder charges erased from his record; they plan to file a lawsuit against the Medical Examiner's Office in two weeks.

Even though state attorney Bernie McCabe claims there are no other cases that need to be reviewed, Action News has found at least one already under review, and the new medical examiner said he is not finished looking into other cases handled by Joan Wood.

ABC Action News will have the story of one of them, John Peel, in a follow-up report.

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