Special to India-West
[Reprinted with permission from Oct. 24, 2003 issue of India-West,
a major west-coast Indian weekly newspaper]
An Indian-American chief medical examiner of two Florida counties has announced his decision to retire in the summer of 2004 amid mounting criticism of his office and a state probe of an allegedly botched autopsy he conducted.
Dr. Shashi Gore, the chief medical examiner of Orange and Osceola counties, has announced his decision to retire, but both the 69-year-old medical examiner and county officials have denied any link between the recent controversy and his decision.
In recent years, several cases that have drawn criticism include Gore's autopsy of a 10-week-old infant in 1997. His conclusion led to the father, Alan Yurko, 33, being given a life sentence without possibility of parole for shaking his infant son to death.
The Florida Department of Health is investigating Gore after he mistakenly described the child as being black when the baby was white. He also gave a detailed description of the child's heart in the autopsy report, but the heart had already been harvested for an organ donation.
When reached by phone, Gore declined to comment specifically on the case. "My attorney has asked me not to talk about the case," he told India-West.
Yurko's wife Francine, who has launched an Internet campaign to free her husband, told India-West she could not believe it when she first learned that the autopsy contained errors.
"I was amazed because you expect a medical examiner doing an autopsy report to be thorough and correct in their evaluation," she said. "You expect them to go through the proper procedure and they have done everything possible to be able to render their decision, especially considering a man's life is at stake, let alone the devastation of a family, for goodness' sake."
Francine said she and her husband discovered a host of errors in the autopsy after her husband was convicted.
"We didn't know half of what we know now until after the trial when we got hold of the records and trials," she said. "We were not educated in the medical and legal issues. We were naïve in believing that justice would prevail." Through her Internet Web site www.freeyurko.bizland.com, she received an outpouring of support and information that helped her fight back.
In a detailed complaint filed against Gore with the Florida Department of Health, Francine mentioned 25 discrepancies and errors. Among other things, it presents examples of contradictory information, mistakenly reported size of the infant's head size, and other errors.
Gore diagnosed the case as Shaken Baby Syndrome, which led to Alan's conviction, but now Alan and Francine say the autopsy has no merit.
"Either this guy has a completely different autopsy of some other child's or he has completely botched ours," Francine told India-West. "As far as I am concerned, where there is no autopsy, there is no case."
The Yurkos have filed a motion for post conviction release, which is pending before the court. The judge ordered the state to respond, "to show good cause why Alan should not be granted his release," Francine said. "We've gone back and forth."
Gore has faced criticism with other cases as well.
The death of 23-month-old Dany Lopez was such a case. Lopez was rushed from Volusia County to Florida Hospital for emergency surgery in October in 2001, and bruises and devastating injuries led nurses and doctors -- including the head of Volusia County's Child Protection Team - to conclude that the child was a victim of abuse.
Although some classified Lopez's case as a probable homicide when he died after surgery Oct. 6, Dr. Sara Irrgang of the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner's Office concluded in January 2002 that the toddler died by tripping and falling onto his baby bottle.
Outrage over Irrgang's conclusion propelled a 19-month investigation to overturn the finding of accidental death.
Gore, Irrgang's boss, agreed to review the case in June 2002 after the head of Volusia County's Child Protection Team threatened to ask the state Medical Examiners Commission to intervene.
Almost a year later -- after Volusia County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Beaver called the death a homicide -- Gore concluded the boy had been killed.
"Gore made headlines in November after an investigation revealed he was doing private work on county time, a practice he openly condemned," the Orlando Weekly reported Jan. 23. "County administrators considered firing him, until they realized only the state can discipline medical examiners."
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Gore courted controversy when he took the job in February 1996 "after he was hired over finalists with far superior medical credentials."
Hiring standards needed to be lowered twice before he could apply, the newspaper reported.
Initially, the applicant had to be a board-certified forensic pathologist—a title that requires five to six years of postdoctoral study and is considered the field's top credential by the American Board of Pathology.
Gore is not board certified in any medical specialty. Only one of Florida's 22 chief medical examiners—in Collier County—is not a board-certified pathologist, according to the newspaper.
However, the newspaper added that Gore and his assistants at the morgue on Lucerne Terrace in Orlando investigate hundreds of violent, suspicious and unnatural deaths each year, and "known mistakes are few."
Gore is credited with taking on "a nearly impossible task of restoring order to a staff split by vicious infighting," the paper said.
"Dr. Gore has a leadership style that did bring that office back together," Lawson Lamar, the Orange-Osceola state attorney who chaired the search committee that hired him, told the Orlando Sentinel. "There was some unhappiness between some different people, and he did a great job of bringing them back together."
Gore concedes it's a tough job. "If you do one thing that [the families and friends of the deceased] don't like, then you're damned," he told the newspaper. "If you don't do the thing they would like you to do, you are damned on the other side as well. It's a tough job."
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