EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Another Dr. Rodriguez Case, Another Disclosure Issue...and Lividity Evidence

Before becoming the Forensic Anthropologist and Chief Deputy Medical Examiner for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Dr. William Rodriguez was a Deputy Chief Coroner

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Through this work, Dr. Rodriguez became known as "a time-of-death specialist." State v. Willie, 559 So.2d 1321, 1334 (La. 1990). It was in this capacity that he was called as an expert witness at the murder trial of Sean Esty, a trial that involved late disclosure of Dr. Rodriguez and conflicting lividity testimony.

According to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Esty v. McDonough, 2007 WL 1294602 (N.D.Fla. 2007), Esty was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of fifteen year-old Lauren Ransey in December 1991.

The State's theory was that [Esty] murdered Ramsey around midnight on December 22, 2001. [Pathologist Dr. Everett Steven] Havard [performed the autopsy and] opined that Ramsey died twenty-four to thirty-six hours prior to the discovery of her body and that she was stabbed prior to the time the head wounds, which were consistent with a baseball bat, were inflicted....[Esty]'s theory was that Ramsey died much later than midnight on December 22, and that [Esty] had an alibi for the time period in which she died. Defense expert, entomologist Jeffrey Wells, believed the fly eggs found on Ramsey's body were deposited after the rain ended on December 23; however, he found nothing inconsistent with the body being at the site at midnight on the 22nd...Defense expert Michael Arnall, an associate medical examiner, placed time of death between noon on December 23 and noon on December 24 based on his analysis of lividity, rigor mortis, corneal opacity, greening of the body, and the unhatched fly eggs...However, Arnall stated that his findings were not inconsistent with Well's findings...In rebuttal, the State presented forensic anthropologist William Rodriguez, who disagreed with Dr. Arnall's assessment, and testified that he believed that Ramsey's body was at the site between thirty-six and forty-two hours at the time of its discovery. 

After he was convicted, Esty appealed, claiming both that (1) the State acted improperly in failing to list Dr. Rodriguez as a potential witness until four days before trial; and (2) his trial counsel was ineffective based upon failing to challenge Dr. Rodriguez's testimony.

On the first point, the court acknowledged that "[t]he State listed Rodriguez as a possible witness on July 16, 1992, four days prior to the beginning of Petitioner's trial, and defense counsel was not aware that Dr. Rodriguez was listed as an expert witness." That said, the court noted that defense counsel did learn of Dr. Rodriguez at trial, "conducted an extensive and rigorous cross-examination of Rodriguez, and counsel's ability to thoroughly cross-examine Rodriguez was not materially affected by counsel's failure to earlier recognize that Rodriguez would be called as a witness."

Nonetheless, Esty's appellate counsel claimed that trial counsel's ability to cross-examine Dr. Rodriguez was hampered by trial counsel relinquishing the services of his own expert witness before Dr. Rodriguez testified. The Northern District of Florida, however, agreed with the Supreme Court of Florida that "[a]ny prejudice appears to be self-inflicted by counsel's failure to inquire into the nature of this witness's testimony before relinquishing the services of his own expert witness, and not because of any discovery violation by the State"

Given this finding, you might expect that the Northern District of Florida would have found that trial counsel was ineffective in challenging Dr. Rodriguez's testimony. There were, however, a few problems with this claim, including the one that I will highlight here. According to the Northern District of Florida,

Rodriguez undermined the credibility of the State's case when he testified that the State's pathologist, Havard, made serious mistakes in the conduct of the autopsy as well as in his findings...Rodriguez strenuously disagreed with Havard's findings regarding the presence of post-mortem lividity, a factor in determining how long a body has been dead...While Havard noted no postmortem lividity, both Rodriguez and defense expert Arnall testified that lividity was clearly present (emphasis added). 

In other words, Dr. Rodriguez actually contradicted the State's pathologist (and agreed with the defense expert) on the lividity evidence, meaning that a rigorous cross-examination of him would have been counterproductive.

What's interesting about all of this is that Dr. Rodriguez is "a time-of-death specialist," with specialized knowledge of lividity evidence based in part upon his years as a Deputy Chief Coroner at an office that performed a significant number of autopsies. This is interesting because, as I've noted, Dr. Margarita Korell, who performed Hae's autopsy, was not at Leakin Park for the disinterment of Hae's body. Conversely, Dr. Rodriguez, who supervised that disinterment, was present for Dr. Korell's autopsy. According to the autopsy report,

The body was found in the woods, buried in a shallow grave with the hair, right foot, left knee, and left hip partially exposed. The body was on her right side.

This is ostensibly information that came from Dr. Rodriguez, not Dr. Korell.* This is important. You could imagine many forensic anthropologists (bone experts) being unaware of the significance of stating that a body with anterior (frontal) lividity was found on its "right side." But, given Dr. Rodriguez's experience and knowledge of autopsies, time-of-death calculations, and lividity, he would have been fully aware that the autopsy's description of the burial position was inconsistent with its description of the lividity. 

As such, if Cristina Gutierrez had asked him about this inconsistency, it could have caused significant damage to the State's case. But, as with Dr. Korell, Gutierrez never asked about how long it takes for lividity to become fully fixed and what that meant for the State's timeline.


*It also potentially could have come from Marlon Aquino, who was present for disinterment and signed the autopsy report as well.



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Hi Colin,

What's your position on the position of the body? There seems to be some suggestion that the body was twisted, face and chest down, legs on their side. Would this positioning be consistent with the lividity evidence?

If the body was consistent with the lividity evidence, wouldn't it have been a bad idea to cross examine Rodriguez on these points? For example, Rodriguez could have clarified how the body was positioned. After all, the person who performed the autopsy wasn't at the burial site to see the body position, right? Also, wouldn't it have been a bad idea to have the expert witness confirm Jay's testimony that the body was face down?

Posted by: Mike | Jan 27, 2016 12:37:18 PM

It looks like Dr. Rodrigues would have been able to perform autopsies himself as a Deputy Cornoner in Louisiana.

Even though he was not a medical doctor, it appears that the rules were different in Louisiana. And as a non-physician he could've legally performed them. And since the office that he was deputy coroner for handled two thirds of the autopsies in Louisiana at that time, it seems likely he would've participated in doing autopsies.

If it's shown that Dr Rodriguez actually conducted autopsies himself, would that not have given even greater legal weight to his knowledge and expertise regarding his observations and conclusions about the circumstances surrounding her death. And of course the lividity evidence.

If there was a retrial, could he be called to the stand to testify regarding his excavation of the body and his crime scene observations?

Also, what weight would it have based on his demonstrated experience in rape investigations? Could he be asked to testify on his observations concerning a possible sexual assault?

Posted by: Pdxkat | Jan 27, 2016 2:05:59 PM

Mike: I showed the medical examiner on the podcast the crime scene photos introduced at trial. She indicated that (1) Hae's lower body was perpendicular to the ground; and (2) Hae's upper body was diagonal to the ground. According to the ME, this was inconsistent with the anterior lividity, which would have required Hae's body to be parallel to the ground. Therefore, the lividity was inconsistent with the burial position.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jan 27, 2016 2:06:03 PM

I have another question.

Because Dr Rodriguez seemed to have been accepted by the court as an autopsy expert, could he be called to provide his expert opinion on the diamond shape pressure marks found on Haes body shoulders.

These marks are visible on the autopsy photos however they were not mentioned in the autopsy report.

Dr Rodriguez has expertise on crime scenes and has anthropological experience combined with his autopsy experience.

The marks that appear on Haes body have to be made by some kind of man-made inorganic item. However nothing was collected at the crime scene that could have created these pressure marks on her body.


Should Cristina Gueterriz have questioned Dr. Korrell and Dr. Rodrigues about these pressure marks at the trial.

Can anything be done legally to investigate them at this point?

Posted by: Pdxkat | Jan 27, 2016 2:35:07 PM

That's good to know. I assumed from this quote in your post that you were working from the idea that the burial position was pretty much fully on the right side.
" You could imagine many forensic anthropologists (bone experts) being unaware of the significance of stating that a body with anterior (frontal) lividity was found on its 'right side.'"

Do you know what the trial photos were entered to show? Were they entered for a proposition regarding body position, during the burial, something regarding the autopsy, or were they entered for a more general purpose?

Posted by: Mike | Jan 27, 2016 2:44:00 PM

Pdxkat: Very interesting. I would love to know whether he did autopsies. That would certainly give meant that his opinions were entitled to more legal weight. He could certainly be called at a re-trial, although I doubt he remembers much. He could testify about whether there was a sexual report, but, without a report, it would be tough for him to state any firm conclusions.

Dr. Rodriguez could have been asked about the diamond shaped pressure marks. The same goes of Dr. Korell. I have no idea how either would have testified. We haven’t been able to figure them out yet.

Mike: I don’t know why the prosecution introduced them. I don’t think they helped or hurt the State’s case much besides the obvious visceral impact.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jan 27, 2016 5:02:13 PM

Well, I think it may be an important point. If they weren't entered to show the burial position, they may not actually illustrate the burial position. I assume you know if they were taken before, during or after the body was uncovered since you showed them to the medical examiner you contacted. Could the body have been moved before those pictures were taken?

Posted by: Mike | Jan 27, 2016 6:32:33 PM

Mike -- Dr. Rodriguez testified that the first set of four photos were taken before anything had been moved. To the extent his memory can be relied upon given his failure to record anything, then no, the body was not moved before the body was taken.

Posted by: Susan | Jan 27, 2016 8:04:04 PM

Thanks Susan. Do you have a link to the trial transcript? I'd love to see if "moved" was in the context of location or context of position. It seems like it would have been hard to un-bury the bod without moving it some.

Posted by: Mike | Jan 28, 2016 5:40:14 AM

EP: it appears that Dr. Rodriguez DID perform autopsies:


Posted by: NishaMcNisha | Jan 28, 2016 6:56:48 AM

Sorry, typo. Not moved before the photos were taken.

Posted by: Susan | Jan 28, 2016 7:38:47 AM

I’ve recently started a free online course teaching the basics of forensic anthropology using a pretend case – and it’s shown me just how insufficient the work in Hae’s case was. If anyone’s interested, you can register an expression of interest for the next course – I’d definitely recommend it! https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/identifying-the-dead

Posted by: Cupcake | Jan 28, 2016 9:00:26 AM

Thanks cupcake. That looks interesting. I also appreciate various links and information you provided in another comments on other posts . So I thought I would thank you for all your contributions in this one comment

Colin is bringing some hidden information to light by documenting these cases in his posts.

Posted by: Pdxkat | Jan 28, 2016 11:51:34 AM

Thanks Pdxkat ;-)

Posted by: Cupcake | Jan 29, 2016 7:24:34 AM

Susan or Colin -- Can you direct me to where Dr. Rodriguez said the photos were taken prior to the body being moved? I can't seem to find it in here:

Posted by: Mike | Jan 29, 2016 10:55:55 AM

Mike: That's his testimony from trial 1. At trial 2, on 1/28/00, he describes the first set of four photographs that were taken before the body was moved. Urick then shows him the next set of photographs, which Dr. Rodriguez describes as being taken "later in time, after we began our initial examination of the remains and began to excavate them from the subsurface deposit here." This is roughly pages 160-164 in the transcript.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jan 29, 2016 12:15:56 PM

Grant Graham, who was called in along with Dr. Rodriguez to work the scene, likewise testified that the first set of four photos was taken before any work had been done: http://i.imgur.com/hJp9kP6.png

Posted by: Susan | Jan 29, 2016 3:26:44 PM

Hi Colin:
I've recently begun devouring all the Serial and then Undisclosed series' of podcasts surrounding the Adnan Syed case and have been, at different times fascinated, disgusted and perplexed by the myriad conflicting elements of the State's case and the information Sarah Koenig, you, Susan and Rabbya have uncovered. I have dozens of questions as result but the first one I am going to pose is tangentially related to this thread on lividity evidence and its interpretation. In one of the Undisclosed podcasts you refer to a case from Maryland known as State v. Nicholas(sic?) where a father was convicted of shooting his 2 year old daughter and then going to a movie with her dead body in his car in order to create an alibi. My questions is this: regardless of the conflicting nature of the story and the lividity evidence, how is it that eyewitness testimony from the first responders after the 911 call could not easily establish whether the victim had been recently shot (within 15-20 minutes) versus having been shot over 2 hours prior? Would it not be blindingly obvious to a police officer or EMT that there was fresh and/or flowing blood, that the body was still warm etc? It seems there should have been no need to use lividity evidence to determine the approximate time of death but I am not a police officer nor an attorney....

Posted by: Marcus | Feb 1, 2016 12:57:45 PM

The diamond pressure marks. I just posted a blog post to expose a possibility of a pattern die I found that is VERY similar. I have tried to send this information to the team, but no one replied. Colin, perhaps you can take this forward?


Posted by: JLWhitaker | Feb 2, 2016 2:22:15 AM

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