Expert's lies jeopardize murder convictions
June 26, 2008
MADISON, Wis. — Saami Shaibani often testified for the prosecution in big murder cases, taking the stand as an expert in what he called "injury mechanism analysis" — a combination of physics, trauma medicine and engineering that he used to determine whether, say, a woman fell down the stairs or was beaten.
But after years of helping lock up killers, Shaibani could be the one in trouble.
The physicist lied under oath about his credentials, and now some of the convictions he helped secure are in jeopardy. At least one has been overturned so far.
His testimony has come under attack in at least five cases from Washington, D.C., to South Dakota since Shaibani was caught lying when he claimed that he was a clinical associate professor at Temple University and that he taught doctors there about injuries.
"He's a fraud. Basically, he was trying to create himself as an expert so he could run around the country and testify in these cases," said Wisconsin lawyer Stephen Willett.
Citing Shaibani's misrepresentations, Willett persuaded the Wisconsin Supreme Court this month to overturn the conviction of a man serving life in prison for allegedly poisoning his wife and drowning her in a toilet. The court ordered a new trial.
Shaibani did not return messages left at his home in Lynchburg, Va. He testified in 2004 that he tried not to embellish but that he may inadvertently "give myself the benefit of the doubt." No charges have been brought against him. But the district attorney in the Wisconsin drowning case said he may open a perjury investigation.
Defendants and prosecutors around the country are sparring over Shaibani's testimony.
In Washington, a woman convicted of killing her 2-year-old goddaughter in 2001 wants a new trial. Shaibani was the only witness to testify the girl could not have fallen down the stairs as the woman, Angela O'Brien, claimed, her lawyer said. Prosecutors said the woman slammed the baby's head on the floor. An appeals court decision is expected soon.
In South Dakota, a farmer claims he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Shaibani testified it was against the laws of physics for the woman to have fallen downstairs, as the husband claimed. Prosecutors said the victim was beaten and strangled. The courts have upheld his conviction, citing other evidence, but he continues to appeal.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors are taking a closer look at Shaibani's resume but say that at least some of his claims — that he is an Oxford-trained physicist and that he holds a patent on a method for diagnosing injuries — check out. Also, a Virginia Tech spokesman confirmed he taught a physics course there in 2000 and 2001.
Shaibani said during a 2004 deposition that he had testified in about 40 cases over the previous decade.
His resume-padding came to light after he testified in 2003 in North Carolina at the trial of Mike Peterson, a writer accused of bludgeoning his wife to death. Shaibani said it was impossible that Kathleen Peterson died from a fall down the stairs.
But Peterson's lawyers produced letters from Temple saying he was never on the payroll and had only a "loose courtesy affiliation" with the Philadelphia university's physics department between 1995 and 1998; the post gave him parking privileges and little else.
A judge threw out Shaibani's testimony in the Peterson case, but the defendant was still convicted. "That doesn't make Shaibani any less of a charlatan," said Peterson lawyer David Rudolf.
Shaibani also testified in the 2002 Wisconsin trial of Douglas Plude, who prosecutors say poisoned his wife with a migraine drug and then drowned her in the toilet at their home. Plude claimed he found his wife dying with her face in a vomit-filled toilet and tried to rescue her. He said she committed suicide by overdosing on pills.
Medical experts were divided over whether it was homicide or suicide. They said water in her lungs could have been her own body fluid — a reaction to the drugs found in her system — or toilet water.
But Shaibani said he studied the case by positioning volunteers the size of Genell Plude around a similar toilet and studying their movements. He said his experiments proved that someone must have forced her head under water.
All seven Supreme Court justices said Plude deserved a new trial because Shaibani lied about his credentials. One justice called his behavior "egregious." Plude, who has spent five years in prison, is expected to be retried next spring.
In a letter to The Associated Press, Plude likened Shaibani to the corrupt cartoon character Dr. Nick on "The Simpsons."
"Shaibani was the state's key witness and (they) wouldn't have proved a homicide without him," he wrote. "The laws need to be changed so these fraudulent experts cannot come into this state and tell lies or use so-called tests not accepted in scientific communities."
The state Justice Department acknowledged Shaibani's "resume-puffing" but argued Plude would have been convicted even without his testimony.
Lawyers say Shaibani is no longer called as a witness. By 2004, he testified his main employment was helping an older man write down orders for his plumbing business.
Rudolf, the defense attorney, said he was troubled not only by Shaibani's fabricated credentials but by his methodology. He laughed as he recalled Shaibani's work on the Wisconsin case.
"He had women sticking their heads in toilets," he said. "That's just not science. How do you peer review that? How do you test his conclusions?"
||Truth in Justice