Dr. Phil’s Autopsy

November 24, 2011 Criminal Defense

I recently wrote a piece on the Rebecca Zahau case for the Huffington Post. You can find it here. It was a follow-up to an another article I wrote for the Daily Beast. You can find it here.  Since my first article, the case has reached the highest levels of tabloid fame. Her death was tragic enough, but I find it more than a little ghoulish to dig up Rebecca’s body for the Dr. Phil reality show.

After the last of several election scandals in Miami, the joke went around that “when I die I want to be buried in the City of Miami so I don’t lose my right to vote.” I guess we have a new version now, “When I die, I still have a chance to appear on Dr. Phil.”

Since my last article, I received an email from Dr. Cyril Wecht about it. Clearly Dr. Wecht was not enamored of the tone of my article. I try to answer his complaints with an email of my own.

Here is the correspondence so far:

Dear Roy:

You certainly are entitled to your own analysis and opinions regarding the death of Rebecca Zahau. We both appreciate and accept the fact that there can be significantly different, (indeed, even diametrically opposite) conclusions regarding any case, civil or criminal, expressed by respected medical/scientific experts, let along trial attorneys.

However, I would not have expected the totally unwarranted, highly insulting, unnecessary, and inappropriate ad hominem comment that you made about me in your Huff Post article, “Dr. Phil Ratings Stunt Dishonors Tragic Case.”

On what basis do you conclude that “The pathologist Dr. Phil is using, Dr. Cyril Wecht, is far from independent”?  I have not received, nor have I submitted a bill, for any payment in this matter from Attorney Bremner, the Zahau family, or anyone else.

I am truly amazed that you, as a veteran criminal defense attorney, would choose to attack a private medical expert and challenge his independence. Who knows better than someone with your experience that it is the “independence” of law enforcement officials and prosecutors that needs to be questioned and challenged in many death investigations. But in this case, you have appointed yourself as their protector-defender-champion.  Something doesn’t pass the sniff test here.

I don’t know from whence cometh your obvious bias in this matter. Just what is it about this case that apparently has excited you to such an intense degree?

And since when does being a lawyer equate to being a forensic pathologist? Lee Bailey, Gerry Spence, Stanley Preiser, and many other truly great criminal trial attorneys that I have had the pleasure of working with were all sufficiently modest to know that they needed to consult a forensic pathologist in dealing with problematic death cases.  Evidently, you seem to have acquired a level of erudition and expertise that in your mind transcends all these other gentlemen.

Perhaps you should consider jumping over to the other side in your remaining years. You would not make as much money, but you might find it more comfortable.

Very truly yours,

Cyril H. Wecht, M.D., J.D.

Dear Cyril:I am happy to answer the issues raised in your email. You ask why I have such an “intense” interest in the Zahau matter. I spent last summer in Los Angeles and followed the Zahau investigation in the LA Times as I do many criminal cases in the news. I thought it would be a useful exercise for students in my law class on evidence to examine the case. What raised my level of interest to “intense” was the family’s media campaign to hang a false murder charge on Jonah Shacknai. No one else stepped up to examine the matter objectively and rebut the false accusations paraded through many television shows, so I decided to take it on.

The Zahaus and their legal team used these television appearances in a fiercely determined effort to whip-up a virtual lynch mob and march them down to San Diego. Frankly I was surprised when you joined the mob. Their actions are immensely cruel to Shacknai and his remaining family. Is there any consideration of human feelings here? This man’s six-year-old child suffered a horrible two-story fall, was gravely injured and lapsed into a coma. At the time Rebecca hanged herself, a distraught Schnaknai was clinging to the bedside of his dying son Max. Yet now he supposedly murdered her? I can understand the family not accepting the verdict of suicide but using lawyers to turn this into a made-for-television murder is just too much for me to stomach.

This, of course, raises another question. You asked about my intense interest, so I can do the same with you. Why go on all these TV shows and do an autopsy for free? That seems a pretty intense interest to me, far more than mine. And if you are in the mood for a little self-reflection, why do you think Dr. Phil is so “intensely” interested, enough to turn it into a two-show special? Oh, I would venture to guess exploitation, titillation and the almighty ratings god. In fact, how often do you announce your scientific findings on a daytime entertainment show?

You mention I am somehow “jumping over to the other side in my remaining years” because I have the temerity to criticize this circus. But I don’t quite understand your point. In my forty-plus years of criminal defense, I have always advocated there was no crime, or if there was, my client didn’t do it, or my client was not responsible for it. I talk to police and prosecutors almost everyday. I always applaud the police and prosecutors when they announce my client didn’t commit a crime. So what is different here?

My point is that there was no crime here and no one except Rebecca is responsible for her death. Thus I am entirely consistent. But even if I wasn’t, as a citizen I have the right to give an opinion on a matter of public interest such as this without having to explain myself. It seems I have done that anyway.

If anyone has “jumped the fence” it is the family’s legal team. They are experienced litigators, yet in their appearances on show after show they seem to be seeking to charge an innocent man or some unknown family member with a phony murder. Perhaps you should direct this question to them. I would love to hear the answer.

Now to a matter of more substance. You take umbrage at my statement that your opinions are not “independent.” I say that because you expressed opinions about the case before you did your autopsy and then appeared on Dr. Phil. You prominently said on TV shows and in print that you disagreed with the finding of suicide by the San Diego medical examiner and homicide detectives.

Anne Bremner wrote an article on September 22, 2011, which was published in a blog called “Women in Crime Ink.” she wrote: “Renown pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht has reviewed the autopsy report and has concluded this is not a suicide and that she had blunt force trauma in four places on the top of her head, inconsistent with the fall and consistent with blows that could have rendered Rebecca unconscious.” This is only one of several published source disclosing your opinions.

So prior to your autopsy and prior to “reporting” to the Dr. Phil audience, you had made conclusions. The purpose of any scientific examination is to find the truth, not to confirm what we already believe. We look for what’s there, not for what we want to be there. And that is why I argued you weren’t independent. You had already decided what was there.

You also mention that you are independent because you did this pro bono. I have no idea why that is significant, however in several newspaper articles the Zahau legal team states that they retained you as their forensic expert. Of course I have no idea about the arrangements and fully accept your statement that you are doing it pro bono. I just don’t think it makes any difference.

Please do not consider my comments about the Zahau case in any way to disparage your qualifications or ability. They are obvious to everyone in this field. However I believe I have a reasonable basis to contest your findings or lack of findings in this particular case.

“Without critics we are doomed to die a strangulating death of mediocrity.” Harlan Ellison

One reason I took this on was in deference to the feelings of Mr. Schnaknai. Imagine having your young son die under these circumstances and then your long time girlfriend hanging herself at your house. And then people take to the news media with veiled claims you had her killed. I find this offensive and intend to keep up my criticism of it. I hate lynch mobs, both literal and virtual.

Postscript: Now for the people living in glass-houses moment. After receiving my response, a member of the Zahau legal team emailed me saying they were personally offended by my comments. Let me see — they are offended by my criticism of their false accusation against Shacknai or other Shacknai family members for murdering Rebecca. Unfortunately their sensitivity to feelings doesn’t extend to Jonah Shacknai and his family.