Renowned crime expert sought by nat'l TV while testifying in Juneau

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Perched on the side of a bed in a downtown Juneau hotel room, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden breathlessly attempted to juggle two telephones.

Baden, chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police, had just finished testifying in the third murder trial of 20-year-old Jose "Che" Mateu of Ketchikan. And broadcast news programs wanted his comments on the latest developments in the Laci Peterson case.

Baden has been made famous in forensic science circles by his HBO series "Autopsy" and his involvement in some of the country's most notable murder investigations, including the O.J. Simpson case. A week ago, after telling a Juneau jury about how a bullet killed Che Mateu's father Jose in the Ketchikan murder case, Baden was bombarded by interview requests from journalists covering the Peterson case.

Modesto, Calif., police had scheduled a press conference for the afternoon. Journalists thought police, who the previous day found the bodies of a woman and baby on the shoreline of Richmond, Calif., might have identified one of the bodies as that of Peterson.

Waiting to be interviewed by telephone on MSNBC's "Hardball," Baden knew better.

"They're going to say they are suspicious, but they can't tell," Baden whispered as he waited for the press conference to begin.

Sure enough, police announced they would not have a positive identification for several days.

Baden still had plenty to say about the case. He began by explaining that the bodies might have been wrapped in plastic sheeting found at the scene and weighed down. The gases formed during the decomposition process could have caused the woman's body to float to the surface.

Baden finished and turned to his second phone, to talk to Mark Furman on the former Los Angeles police officer's radio show. The two speculated the decomposed body, found with its head and limbs detached, was mutilated by the killer.

Furman thanked Baden for his insight and Baden chuckled as he hung up the phone.

"I'm a big expert now," Baden said, smiling. "During O.J. Simpson, I wasn't such a big expert."

Furman and Baden testified on opposite sides during the Simpson trial.

In the O.J. Simpson trial, Baden disputed prosecution claims that the former football star had left a footprint on the back of victim Nicole Brown Simpson and how long it took the accused killer's ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman to die.

The Simpson case, he said, changed forensic science forever because it brought to the forefront the issue of crime-scene preservation. But America has not yet learned its lesson, Baden said.

Half of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks have not been identified because the scene was not methodically combed for tissue samples, he said. While rubble was being removed, so were small tissue samples that could have been used for DNA analysis, said Baden.

He sees that same mistake occurring in Iraq. Servicemen using bulldozers to search for Saddam Hussein's body in the rubble could have destroyed DNA evidence, he said.

"There's so many things going on, but it all comes back to forensic science," Baden said.

Baden estimates he has conducted more than 20,000 autopsies. He was the chief forensic pathologist on a congressional panel in charge of investigating the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Over his lengthy career, he has seen major transformations in forensic science.

The process of matching hair, once widely respected, has turned out to be "not so valid" with the advent of DNA testing.

In the famous Central Park jogger case, Baden said, hairs on two of the suspects were found to "match" the victim's. Years later, the hair was tested against the victim's DNA and was found not to match, he said.

Problems also have been found with handwriting analysis and bite marks.

"Innocent people are being convicted," he said. "We have to have humility that some of the stuff that we do is going to turn out to be wonderful and some of the stuff is going to turn out to be unreliable."

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