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Big Wheel Keeps on Turning
by Tamara Baker and Celeste Harrison Whitlow

July 21, 2003 (apj.us) -- Between the evening of July 19th, 2001, and the following morning, a young, vigorous political aide named Lori Klausutis died alone and under mysterious circumstances in the Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, offices of Congressman Joseph Scarborough.

The attending medical examiner, Dr. Michael Berkland, stated in his report that she had fainted and fallen, hitting her head on a desk. This, he said, broke her skull in a 7-inch transverse fracture running from right temple to left, pulverized a region of bone the size of a small marble inside the skull behind the right ear and caused a fist-sized hematoma, or effusion of blood, gathering below the dura mater of the left side of the skull. There was also a contusion, or bruise, on the back of the head. Bloody foam, signifying a death of slow asphyxiation, bubbled up from her lungs into her mouth. Just for good measure, Dr. Berkland claimed that Lori's heart had also failed.

Remarkably, the entire political establishment of northwest Florida, from the police department to the press formed a solid stone wall around this astonishing conclusion.

Berkland's supervisor, Dr. Gary Cumberland, did not notice the internal contradiction between the claim of heart failure and the formation of a massive hematoma. Nor did he remark on Berkland's claim, which contradicts the medical literature, that the hematoma could only have been formed by Lori's head striking an object, not vice versa.

The Chairman of the Medical Examiners' Commission for the state of Florida, Dr. Stephen Nelson, was well aware of the shortcomings in Berkland's record, having recommended that Berkland be suspended for failing to report to Florida that his license was in danger of revocation in Missouri. Nelson knew that Berkland had been fired by the state of Missouri for failing to complete autopsy reports. According to his Missouri supervisor's deposition, Berkland failed to perform 28 autopsy reports for homicides alone in 1994-5. The total number of incomplete cases may have been over 140. Ultimately the cause of death could not be determined for several cases.

Nelson also learned at the time of the Klausutis case that Berkland had falsified his curriculum vitae. More seriously, he had falsified autopsy reports and mishandled organs taken from the dead. In one particularly tragic case, one that irreparably traumatized the surviving family members, Berkland removed the brain of a young woman from his office and placed it in the back of his car. It had to be rescued by an agent of the family's attorney.

Nelson, who in 1999 recommended that Berkland be suspended, also knew that Berkland had subsequently escaped discipline by Florida. Yet as senior medical examiner for the state of Florida, Nelson disclaimed to us any power to act in the Klausutis case. Perhaps having witnessed the political workings that squashed Nelson's effort to oust Berkland-- and succeeded in sealing the complaint against Berkland that Nelson had supported-- Nelson concluded that the state of Florida desired good politics over good forensic medicine. In any event, not long after the Berkland episode, Nelson was promoted to the Chairmanship of the Medical Examiners' Commission.

For this second anniversary of Lori Klausutis' death, a review of recent events is in order.

On June 17th, 2003, WGTX AM-1280 radio broke the news that Berkland had been abruptly fired.

On June 27th, Michelle Nicholson of WEAR-TV reported that the official cause of dismissal was given as a failure to complete autopsies in a timely fashion. This was one of the same charges that led to his firing in Missouri. In Florida, Berkland claimed he had done 320 autopsies in his last year in the First Judicial District Medical Examiner's office. This number, disputed by the medical examiner's office, is substantially greater than the number he was performing in Missouri and may represent cases with incomplete or absent notes.

Given the backlog of unperformed autopsies, the cause of dismissal is suspicious. By firing Berkland abruptly, with no replacement available, Berkland's supervisor, Dr. Gary Cumberland, is faced with doing double duty. There are even more serious implications. As noted, Berkland has a history of having claimed to do autopsies that he had not completed, and in many cases, had never started. With Berkland's departure, many more cases may well pass into legal limbo, with the cause of death impossible to ascertain.

Unraveling the full slate of Berkland's deceptions could prove to be a full-time job. He seems to have misstated the date of his hiring as acting medical examiner by the Jackson County Medical Examiner's office, listing 1990 rather than 1994 as the start date. The University of Kansas School of Medicine has failed to respond to repeated inquiries into Berkland's claim of having served as an associate professor of pathology, beginning in 1993. We also understand that he was booted from Litton Pathology Associates, where he had moonlighted even as he was avoiding his work at the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office, with his possessions being unceremoniously dumped in the parking lot.

The courts, of course, are unlikely to do this sort of continuing re-examination. Dozens of people, convicted on the strength of Berkland's incomplete, inaccurate and invented work will remain in prison. In many cases, the defendants are poor and sport an unpopular shade of skin. The courts are busy, don't you know? In Missouri, courts were extraordinarily indulgent of Berkland's misdeeds. Therefore, justice is likely to come slow, and from the charitable work of conscientious public defendants rather than as an corrective intrinsic to the system. In other cases, such as that of Lori Klausutis, murderers walk free thanks to Berkland's work- and, of course, thanks to the corruption that hired, retained and even celebrated Berkland.

Joe Scarborough has run a ragged course. A few months after Klausutis' death, responding to a question by Chris Matthews about what would happen to an aide left his employ and wrote about him, Scarborough blurted out "I think they'd be in danger." Abandoning his congressional seat, his role in publishing the Florida Sun and an active legal career with the Levin Law Firm, Joe Scarborough eventually re-married, left northwest Florida and moved to New York, to join the stable of sideshows at MSNBC.

Recently Don Imus slagged Scarborough with a question from left field: "You said you had sex with that intern and then you had to kill her."

Scarborough, laughing, replied, "Yeah, well what are you gonna do?"

On Imus, of course, it's difficult to tell the humor from the rest of the nastiness. One is reminded of George Bush's answer to Tucker Carlson's question about murderess and born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker's plea for clemency. Pursing his lips, Bush mimicked the lady he had doomed: "Please don't kill me."

Hey, death is a scream.

But the political machine in northwest Florida just keeps on rolling. As Bill Moyers reported on PBS, the Emerald Coast is being paved over by the St. Joe Timber company. People of the Panhandle, if you give them enough time, if you stay silent in the face of this wrong, they'll pave over Lori's grave.

With thanks for assistance by Chris George, Denis Wright, R.S. Miller and S. Stanley, as well a mentor who prefers to remain anonymous.

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