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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Lori Klausutis: The Sudden and Unexplained Death of a Congressional Aide

     On Friday, July 20, 2001, at 8:10 in the morning, a constituent entered the Fort Walton Beach, Florida office of U.S. Congressman, Joseph Scarborough. Inside, the constituent discovered Lori Klausutis, a 28-year-old congressional aide, lying dead on the floor. No one else was in the office. Klausutis's car was parked outside, the lights in the office were on, and the front door was unlocked. 

     Two hours after Joe Scarborough's aide was found dead near her desk, detectives at the scene told reporters that while they wouldn't know her cause and manner of death until the autopsy, there was no sign of a struggle, or evidence of a break-in or robbery. According to the investigators, they had no reason to suspect foul play. (As it turned out, these officers were either lying or incompetent.)

    On the afternoon of Lori Klausutis' sudden death, Dr. Michael Berkland performed the autopsy. The fact this particular forensic pathologist would be establishing the cause and manner of this woman's death was problematic. Dr. Berkland was not a qualified or credible practitioner.

    Dr. Michael Berkland, without specific training or experience in forensic pathology, entered the field in 1994 when he began working in the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office in Kansas City, Missouri. To get the position, Dr. Berkland had lied about his experience and training in the field. He had been on the job less than a year when local prosecutors began complaining that Dr. Berkland was not writing up reports on all of his autopsies. There were also reports that the forensic pathologist didn't take notes within a timely period after doing an autopsy. In response to this complaint, Dr. Berkland assured his critics that he had a good memory.
     Dr. Berkland's colleagues at the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office voiced concerns about his scientific objectivity. In trials where he had testified for the prosecution, he seemed to treat homicide convictions as personal victories. He had become an advocate for law enforcement, a member of the prosecution team. This was not the role of a forensic pathologist.
     In February 1996, the Jackson County Medical Examiner, Dr. Michael Young, fired Dr. Berkland. In reviewing Dr. Berkland's work, Dr. Young and others discovered that 39 percent of Dr. Berkland's autopsies were in one way or another incomplete. In eight autopsies he had incorrectly sectioned the corpses' brains. As a result of his sloppy work and incompetence, nine criminal cases he had worked on were at risk of being overturned on appeal.
     In January 1998, Dr. Berkland was barred from performing autopsies in the state of Missouri on the following grounds: "Dr. Berkland poses a substantial probability of serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of his patients, clients and/or the residents of Missouri." The judge ordering Dr. Berkland's autopsy injunction characterized Dr. Berkland's work as "fraud, misrepresentation, and unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine." A year later, the state revoked Michael Berkland's license to practice medicine.
     By the time he lost his medical license in Missouri, Dr. Berkland was in Florida performing autopsies in the Fort Walton Beach area. He had not told the medical examiner who had hired him in Florida that he had lost his medical license in Missouri. Had they known that, they would not have hired him.
     The day after performing the Lori Klausutis autopsy, Dr. Berkland, at a press conference, said, "Based on physical evidence, I feel comfortable moving the time of death back to the previous day." He said the young woman's death was accidental due to natural causes, noting a past medical history that was significant. Because the sudden death of a young aide in a congressman's office was potentially a big news story, reporters were disappointed with the vagueness of Dr. Berkland's presentation.
     Following Dr. Berkland's press conference, the story of the congressional aide's death, as shaped by the police, Dr. Berkland, and perhaps staffers in Congressman Scarborough's office, featured Klausutis' history of bad health. 
     On August 6, 2001, two and a half weeks after Lori Klausutis' sudden death, Dr. Berkland held another press conference to announce his findings. During that press conference he revealed that Klausutis had sustained a "scratch and a bruise" on her head. This new information prompted questions as to why he had initially reported no signs of physical trauma. Dr. Berkland explained that his omission had been "designed to prevent undue speculation about the cause of death." Apparently Dr. Berkland thought it was his duty to prohibit speculative thinking, a role far beyond the scope of forensic pathology. Dr. Berkland told reporters that the last thing he wanted "was 40 questions about a head injury." Once again, this forensic pathologist had abandoned his role as an objective scientist, destroying his credibility in the case.  
    According to Dr. Berkland, Lori Klausutis, due to a valvular condition in her heart, fainted and fell, bumping (italics mine) her head on the corner of her desk. So, pursuant to his analysis, her death had been either natural or accidental, or perhaps a combination of both. When a reporter asked Dr. Berkland if Lori Klausutis had ever been treated for the heart problem, Dr. Berkland responded that to his knowledge she had not.    
     Because Dr. Berkland had misled the media regarding the condition of Lori Kalusutis' body, reporters demanded to see a copy of his autopsy report. On August 29, 2001, bending to pressure from the media, and a lawsuit, Dr. Berkland released his autopsy report to the Northwest Florida Daily News. The paper published the document's shocking contents. 
     Lori Klausutis had not suffered a head scratch and a bruise as initially stated by the forensic pathologist. She had, in fact, suffered a massive (italics mine) head injury that included a seven-and-one-quarter inch fracture across the top of her skull, an "eggshell" fracture inside her skull above her right eye socket, a scalp contusion on the back of her head, and a subdural hematoma on the left side of her brain that caused it to swell and herniate--break out of--the left side of her skull. 
   Dr. Berkland interpreted the subdural hematoma--called a contracoup injury because it was on the opposite side of the head from the point of impact (causing the brain to slam against the other side of the skull)--as evidence that Klausutis' moving head had struck a stationary object. He chose this scenario over one more suggestive of foul play such as the possibility that a moving object, such as a baseball bat or metal pipe, had struck the victim's head.

     According to Dr. Berkland's postmortem analysis, Lori Klausutis had suffered a "cardiac arrhythmia that had halted her heart and stopped her breathing." On the way to the ground, her head hit the desk and that "blow to the head had contributed to the death because blood pooled at the point where the fracture occurred." The victim, however, had continued to breathe after falling to the floor, a fact supported by the presence around her mouth and nose of a "foam cone," a bubble of froth made up of mucus and blood.

     Although Dr. Berkland had ruled Lori Klausutis' death accidental, it was hard to know from his report if the manner of death was accidental or natural. Photographs of the death scene would have depicted blood and hair on the corner of the desk. If such photographs existed, they were never made public. Moreover, no death site sketches were attached to the autopsy report. So, the public, in trying to understand what had happened to Lori Klausutis, had to take Dr. Berkland's word on this. But just how good was his word? If history was a guide, not very good.

     Two years after Lori Klausutis' sudden, un-investigated death, Dr. Berkland was fired for failing to complete more than 100 autopsy reports during the period 2001 to 2002. The Florida Medical Examiner's Commission suspended his license to perform autopsies, and fined him $5,000.

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