Coroner Faces Scutiny for Flawed Autopsy
Feb. 28, 2003
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ A coroner whose 40-year career has included many high-profile cases _ including John Lennon's murder _ is under attack for his handling of a case that led to a murder charge against a police officer.
In a rare rebuke, the state banned Dr. Elliot Gross, 68, last week from performing autopsies without supervision and ordered him to undergo training.
``Your conduct constituted professional incompetence,'' State Medical Examiner Faruk Presswala told Gross in a censure letter.
The sanction came in response to Gross' mistake on the autopsy of Ellen Andros, 31, found dead in her home March 31, 2001 by her husband, Officer James Andros III.
Prosecutors, relying on Gross' assertion that she had been suffocated, charged Andros with murder. But defense experts, including noted forensic pathologist Michael Baden, examined tissue from Mrs. Andros' body and suggested she died of a rare coronary ailment.
An independent expert agreed, Gross admitted the mistake and the murder charge against Andros was dropped Dec. 4.
``My oversight of a microscopic change in one of several coronary arteries supplying oxygen to Ellen Andros' heart has evoked justifiable criticism,'' he said in a written statement released by his lawyer Tuesday.
``The error contributed to the indictment and aborted criminal proceeding and I will regret it for many years to come.''
Gross has declined interview requests.
Controversy has followed the coroner, whose work in more than 7,000 autopsies included that of Lennon after he was fatally shot in 1980 and of 15-year-old Martha Moxley in 1975 _ a slaying for which Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel was convicted last June.
For example, when subway graffiti artist Michael Stewart died in New York transit police custody in 1983, Gross said he died of cardiac arrest; in fact, Stewart died of injuries suffered while in custody. Three were indicted but never convicted.
In New Jersey, his work came into question in the case of Tracy Thomas, a dentist's wife whose death in a 1997 traffic accident has never been explained. Gross said she died of blunt force trauma when her car skidded off a snowy road and into a utility pole, but her husband blamed an exploding air bag and sued Ford Motor Co.
Baden, hired by Ford, said the woman was strangled, although no one has ever been charged in her death and the case has been closed.
In the Andros case, the officer was suspended and lost custody of his two daughters after Gross' flawed autopsy conclusion. The girls have since been returned to their father, and Andross is back on the police force. He plans a civil lawsuit against Gross and prosecutors.
The soft-spoken, studious Gross _ who served as chief medical examiner for the state of Connecticut from 1970 to 1979, as chief medical examiner for New York City until 1987, in Lake County, Ind., and in New Jersey since 1995 _ has his supporters.
``Over a 40-year period, everybody in this business makes some mistakes and everybody changes diagnoses,'' said Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who has known Gross for years. ``There's nothing wrong with changing a diagnosis. It speaks to maturity, to ethics, to your sense of responsibility.''
Gross, who is paid $142,500 as medical examiner for two sparsely populated New Jersey counties, remains on the payroll, with county authorities saying he deserves credit for owning up to his mistake.
That should count for something, Gross' lawyer said.
``What Dr. Gross did here is what we want public servants to do, which is to stand up and admit errors when they make them,'' said lawyer Russell Lichtenstein. ``The firestorm that has followed Dr. Gross _ no doubt politically motivated _ has sent a message to other public servants that they ought not own up to their oversights or mistakes.''