APRIL 3, 2012 5:49PM

Medical Examiner's Mistakes Causes a Life to Unravel

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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer



The State of Alabama has taken steps toward paying about $119,000 to compensate a woman who was wrongfully imprisoned for nine months on capital-murder charges because of a medical examiner's mistake.


Bridget Lee, 37, of Carrollton, was convicted of killing her newborn son by suffocation. But her court-appointed attorney launched an investigation that caused state forensic experts to rule the medical examiner made a mistake and the baby had been stillborn.


Ricky Lee said he opposes compensation for his ex wife because she became pregnant while having an affair and chose not to seek medical care. Bridget Lee says the murder charge and conviction, caused by a botched autopsy, cost her everything--her home, custody of her children, and her reputation. Ms. Lee said her ex husband's remarks do not surprise her. "He's very bitter," she said in an interview yesterday.


Mr. Lee might understandably be angry because his wife's behavior during their marriage was, at times, less than honorable. But Bridget Lee's experience drives home at least three key points about the way justice is administered and perceived in our country. It also touches on issues we've covered numerous times here at Legal Schnauzer:


* Medical examiners hardly are infallible, and the public should not blindly accept their findings as correct. This issue has been at the hard of our coverage on the death of prominent Birmingham attorney Major Bashinsky.


* Misbehavior in the civil arena should not be confused with, or compared to, official misconduct that causes an individual to lose her freedom. This issue has been a factor in our coverage of the Don Siegelman/Richard Scrushy case.


* Court cases involving child custody or support can be highly emotional and can be decided on false or incomplete information. This has been an issue in our coverage of the Angela Drees and Sherry Carroll Rollins cases.


Evidence shows that Bridget Lee, in fact, made some poor decisions that led to her incarceration. Here is key background from the Associated Press:


Lee was a married mother of two and a Baptist church pianist when her life began to unravel. One thing both she and her husband agree on is that she suffered from depression and an eating disorder after giving birth to their second child.


She began meeting a man on Wednesday nights after choir practice in January 2006. She discovered in the spring that she was pregnant but never saw a doctor for prenatal care.


In a deposition, she acknowledged that the only doctor she saw during the pregnancy was a doctor at an abortion clinic in nearby Tuscaloosa, but she was too far along for an abortion. She kept the pregnancy secret from her family and planned to give up the baby for adoption. According to court records, she gained only about six pounds.


Bridget Lee wound up giving birth at home in her bathroom, and her legal problems started soon after that:


Bridget Lee insisted the baby was stillborn. An autopsy indicated it was born alive and suffocated. Lee was charged with capital murder, which carries the death penalty, and placed in jail. Her state-paid attorney launched an investigation that eventually resulted in the state forensic experts ruling that the medical examiner made a mistake and that the baby was stillborn.


Bridget Lee's life quickly unraveled while she was incarcerated because of a medical examiner's mistake:


While Lee was in jail, her husband got a divorce. He received the family home and custody of their two children, except for every other weekend when they see their mother.


What are we to learn from the Lee case? For one, medical examiners should not be blindly trusted. As in any profession, they come with varying degrees of competence--and they can be subject to political pressure. In the Major Bashinsky case, we have shown that Jefferson County Coroner Gary T. Simmons found the death was a suicide, even though the official report presents no scientific evidence to support that finding.


We also should not confuse Ms. Lee's poor behavior that contributed to a divorce--a civil matter--with the far more distressing criminal matters that led to her wrongful incarceration. In the Siegelman case, codefendant Richard Scrushy was found in a civil case to have been the "CEO of the fraud" at HealthSouth. But that does not mean Scrushy committed a crime when he made a donation to Siegelman's education-lottery fund and then was appointed to a hospital regulatory board. In fact, our reporting (and that of numerous other journalists) has shown that Scrushy did not bribe Siegelman under the facts and the actual law that was present in their criminal case. Court documents show that the criminal trial was riddled with judicial and prosecutorial misconduct.


Finally, we should never assume that courts decide matters of child custody or support in a fair way. In the Angela Turner Drees case, she lost custody of her three children (triplets) because of allegations involving domestic violence against her current husband, Hajo Drees. We now know that the lawyers who made the allegations in official proceedings have acknowledged that the statements regarding Hajo Drees' previous marriage were false. In the Sherry Rollins case, we have seen that her child support for two daughters was determined by a sworn income statement from her ex husband, Ted Rollins, that clearly was false. Mr. Rollins stated under penalty of perjury that he made roughly $50,000 a year, even though he owned portions of at least two corporations, belonged to one of the nation's wealthiest families, and owned three private planes.


Ricky Lee might say that his ex wife does not deserve any compensation, but our question is this: Will about $119,000, if approved by the Alabama Legislature, be sufficient compensation for what Bridget Lee has experienced?


What about her child-custody arrangement? If that was decided primarily on her wrongful arrest and conviction, shouldn't a court revisit that?


I don't have children, so I will defer on this issue to a faithful reader who is a mother of two and has been through a custody battle:


Despite the bitterness spilling from the ex-husband, the state violated this woman's rights and the only attempt they are making to 'fix' it is money? I don't know about y'all, but my children are worth a hell of a lot more than $119k.

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The terms of the divorce were predicated on, and prejudiced by, her being in jail and suspected of murder. They should definitely be modified if there is any justice in the world.