Werner Spitz, ‘Medical Detective’ in High-Profile Murders, Dies at 97

Werner Spitz, ‘Medical Detective’ in High-Profile Murders, Dies at 97

Dr. Werner Spitz, a pathologist whose accounts of the traumatic last moments in some of the most sensational American deaths of the past 60 years figured in cases involving President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Mary Jo Kopechne and many others, died on April 14 in St. Clair Shores, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. He was 97.

He died in hospice care after a brief illness, his son Dr. Daniel Spitz said.

Dr. Spitz’s career of more than 60 years traced to the early days of modern forensic pathology, and his textbook on the topic remains a gold standard in the field. Even after retiring as the chief medical examiner of Macomb County, Mich., in 2004, he continued to perform autopsies and consult with lawyers, saying he had no interest in spending his later years golfing or fishing. Examining the remains of homicide victims was the one thing that did not bore him, he said.

Dr. Spitz used evidence of a tiny skull fracture, the pattern of shirt fibers around a bullet hole or the sticky side of a piece of duct tape to draw conclusions about violent deaths that weighed heavily in the courtroom fate of murder defendants — or, in the cases of President Kennedy and Dr. King, on the judgment of history.

Dr. Spitz was an expert witness for both prosecutors and defense lawyers, saying he never offered an opinion merely for a price but followed where the scientific evidence led. But he was also drawn to the limelight in some of the nation’s most sensational deaths.

Although he never examined the body of JonBenet Ramsey, the child beauty contestant killed in Colorado in 1996, Dr. Spitz accused her brother, Burke Ramsey, of the murder two decades later in a television documentary and a radio interview.

“If you really, really use your free time to think about this case, you cannot come to a different conclusion,” he told the radio station CBS Detroit, according to an article included in a defamation lawsuit that Mr. Ramsey filed against Dr. Spitz in 2016, seeking $150 million.

The claim called Dr. Spitz a “publicity seeker” whose “vicious, unsupported attacks” caused “mental anguish” to Mr. Ramsey, who had been cleared as a suspect by the authorities. The suit was settled.

In the 1970s, while he was the chief medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, Dr. Spitz was named an adviser to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which re-examined the murders of President Kennedy and Dr. King at a time of rising suspicions of government and swirling conspiracy theories.

Given access to color photographs of the president’s body, his clothing and medical reports, Dr. Spitz was deeply critical of the original Navy pathologists from 1963. “They botched that autopsy,” he told The Detroit Free Press in 2013. “They had no experience in forensic pathology.”

Still, his conclusions — along with those of other experts on the House panel — confirmed the findings of the Warren Commission in 1964, that President Kennedy was shot by two bullets fired from behind. The panel found that there was no medical evidence that he was caught in a crossfire by a second shooter firing from a grassy knoll, a theory that arose after the release in 1975 of Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination.

In Dr. King’s assassination, Dr. Spitz and two other forensic pathologists likewise agreed with the original assessment of that authorities that the civil rights leader was slain by a single shot from a high-velocity rifle.

When Senator Edward M. Kennedy careened off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., in 1969, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, his passenger, her family sought to halt an exhumation of her body for an autopsy. Dr. Spitz, then a medical examiner in Baltimore, testified on behalf of her parents that an autopsy could not clarify whether drowning or other injuries caused the death, and that an exhumation would be pointless. The judge agreed.

Werner Uri Spitz was born on Aug. 22, 1926, in Stargard, Germany (now part of Poland), to Siegfried and Anna (Faktor) Spitz, both of whom were physicians.

His parents, who were Jewish, escaped the threat of Nazism by moving before World War II to Mandatory Palestine (now Israel), traveling on a boat filled with Jewish physicians and their families. Werner attended medical school in Geneva and Jerusalem, graduating from Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in 1953.

He gravitated to pathology for its element of detective work. But for a forensic pathologist — operating at the intersection of medicine and crime — Israel offered meager opportunities. In seven years, Dr. Spitz later recalled, he investigated only one murder: the stabbing death of a bagel vendor by a rival bagel maker.

After emigrating to the United States in 1959, however, he was hired as assistant chief medical examiner for Maryland, based in Baltimore, and found no shortage of homicides to investigate.

In 1961, he married Anne Keates, who survives him. In addition to her and his son Daniel, who is also a pathologist, Dr. Spitz is survived by another son, Dr. Jonathan Spitz, a surgeon; a daughter, Rhona Dempsey, a lawyer; and 10 grandchildren. He lived in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.

In 1973, Dr. Spitz and a collaborator, Russell Fisher, published “Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation,” which established Dr. Spitz as a founder of modern forensic pathology. Later editions included a new co-author, his son Daniel, who as a boy spirited his father’s book to the basement to pore over its graphic photographs.

Dr. Spitz’s national reputation long ensured that he was in demand as an expert witness in some of the country’s most high-profile murder cases.

After O.J. Simpson was acquitted in criminal court of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman, Dr. Spitz testified in a civil case that small cuts on Mr. Simpson’s left hand were caused by Ms. Simpson’s fingernails as she fought for her life. A jury found Mr. Simpson liable for wrongful death.

In the trial of a Florida woman, Casey Anthony, who had been accused of murdering her toddler daughter, Caylee, in 2008, Dr. Spitz was a witness for the defense, which argued that the girl had drowned. Dr. Spitz undermined a key piece of the state’s homicide charge by testifying that duct tape, which prosecutors said was used to suffocate Caylee, had been applied after she was already dead. He maintained that if she had been alive, there would have been traces of skin on the tape’s sticky side. Ms. Anthony was acquitted.

And in a high-profile murder case in New York City in 1986, Dr. Spitz was the key prosecution witness against Robert E. Chambers Jr., whom tabloids called the “preppy killer” of Jennifer Levin, 18, whose half-clothed body was found in Central Park. Mr. Chambers told the police that he had accidentally killed Ms. Levin during consensual sex that went too far.

But Dr. Spitz testified that Mr. Chambers strangled Ms. Levin by twisting her blouse into a noose. The defense lawyer, during a cross-examination that turned into a shouting match, accused Dr. Spitz of switching sides, saying that he had first told him a different theory of the death.

After nine days of deliberation in which the jury could not reach a verdict, Mr. Chambers pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

At age 95, two years before his death, Dr. Spitz told Time that he did not recoil from the examination of human remains, but said that the facts of some deaths had a haunting power.

“It isn’t really a matter of it being hard for me to do it, because I’ve done lots of such cases,” he said. “But I then go home and go to sleep, and I dream about it, and it’s horrible.”

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