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Solano County opens review into autopsies by doctor with checkered past

Dr. Thomas Gill at the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office in Kansas City, Missouri in 2004.Michael McClureDr. Thomas Gill at the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office in Kansas City, Mo. in 2004.

Solano County’s sheriff and district attorney are reviewing more than two dozen autopsies from homicide cases performed by a doctor with a history of errors and misdiagnosed rulings on causes of death.

Sheriff Gary Stanton said his staff is checking 27 written autopsy reports filed by Dr. Thomas Gill, looking for inconsistencies and possible inaccuracies. Gill examined more than 300 deaths in Solano County from 2007 to 2009, financial records show.

“We just want to make sure that what we presented was accurate,” Stanton said of Gill’s autopsy reports. “We want to make sure that we didn’t withhold any information that should have gone to any defense attorney.”

Gill worked for Forensic Medical Group Inc., a private autopsy firm based in Fairfield that contracts with more than a dozen jurisdictions across Northern California.

This review comes in response to reporting on Gill’s forensic pathology career - published earlier this month - as part of a joint collaboration between California Watch, ProPublica, Frontline, NPR and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.

Gill has repeatedly resurrected his career during the past 20 years despite autopsy errors in Indianapolis, Northern California and Kansas City, Mo. The California State Bar called the doctor “incompetent” in a 2006 report on a bungled homicide investigation in Sonoma County.

Gill, 67, did not respond to calls for comment today.

In a written statement last month, the doctor acknowledged he made mistakes early in his career, but said that his findings had not been contested or reversed since 2007.

Officials at several of the coroners offices that relied on Gill in recent years said they were unaware of the doctor’s history. Stanton said Solano County District Attorney Donald du Bain is researching whether that information must be disclosed to defense attorneys.

The Solano County review was first detailed this morning by The Reporter newspaper in Vacaville.

In December, Yolo County Sheriff-Coroner E.G. Prieto barred Gill from performing autopsies for his agency after learning from reporters about Gill’s past autopsy mistakes. 

The Yolo County sheriff is now checking the accuracy of Gill’s autopsy work in five homicide cases. Meanwhile, the county’s district attorney is conducting a separate probe of all criminal cases that Gill might have worked on or testified in.

“Obviously there’s significant issues with his testimony based on what we’ve heard,” said Michael Cabral, assistant chief deputy to the Yolo County district attorney. Gill’s past errors were not disclosed in any of the Yolo County cases.

Forensic Medical Group did not return calls for comment today.

The firm cut its ties with Gill at the end of last year, explaining in a written statement that it no longer had enough cases to justify employing the doctor. However, Forensic Medical Group wrote that it was “not aware of any significant errors in Dr. Gill’s work performance or reports” for their clients.

Stanton said that he alerted the firm about an inaccuracy in one of Gill’s reports in 2008.

An autopsy assistant discovered a spleen left behind in a morgue sink after Gill finished autopsying the body of an inmate who died in the California Medical Facility, a prison hospital. The organ was intact and had not been cut, Stanton said.

But when Gill submitted his report on the death, the doctor wrote that he had dissected the spleen as part of his examination.

“I have a report that says he did,” Stanton said. “I have a spleen that says he didn’t.”

The sheriff notified Forensic Medical Group of the discrepancy and asked that the firm no longer send Gill to perform its autopsies.

In 2009, Stanton said he hired Dr. Susan Hogan* as Solano County’s chief forensic pathologist, replacing the private company.

Hogan, who previously worked with Gill at Forensic Medical Group, will lead the review of Gill’s autopsies.

Last month, the doctor provided California Watch a list of court cases he testified in during the past decade, including 22 criminal prosecutions. Thirteen of them were in Solano County.

Some of the homicide cases have already resulted in convictions.

Among them was the prosecution of William Michael Blackburn, convicted in the 2007 beating death of James Rucker, a 22-year-old Vacaville resident, according to articles from The Reporter newspaper.

A year ago, a jury convicted Richard Lee Strand of killing Gloria Faison, the mother of his ex-girlfriend, by setting her house on fire.

Gill performed autopsies on both Rucker and Faison, county billing records show.

It is not yet known whether Gill’s examinations and testimony served as critical evidence in any of the homicide cases.

Since entering forensic pathology in 1993, Gill faced little competition for autopsy jobs due to a chronic shortage of certified forensic pathologists. The absence of trained practitioners is so acute that many jurisdictions don't look closely at the doctors they employ.

Gill had no formal training in how to perform forensic autopsies when he landed his first job in death investigation with Indianapolis’ coroner office. He made a series of mistakes in his examinations and was accused of arriving drunk to a deposition, which prompted the coroner to terminate his contract.

Gill worked for the Forensic Medical Group for four years before he became the No. 2 forensic pathologist in Kansas City in 2002. He returned to the company in 2007.

Forensic Medical Group began sending Gill to Solano County in February 2007 and he performed the vast majority of its autopsies for the next 22 months.

* Correction: This post mistakenly said that in 2009 the Solano County Sheriff hired Dr. Susan Comfort to be the county’s chief forensic pathologist. The sheriff hired Dr. Susan Hogan for the job.

 

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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