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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Dr. Ralph Erdmann: The Forensic Pathologist From Hell

     Most forensic pathologists are hardworking, well intentioned and competent. Even the best of them make honest mistakes. But over the years there have been several high-profile embarrassments to the profession. These forensic pathologists, because they were careless, incompetent, corrupt or weak, did great harm to criminal defendants, victims of crime and forensic science. Dr. Ralph Erdmann, a run-amok forensic pathologist who worked many years in west Texas represents the worst of the worst.

     In 1981, 25 years after acquiring a medical degree in Mexico, Dr. Erdmann moved to Childress in Lubbock County, Texas. He began, on a private contract basis, doing autopsies for five small hospitals in the county. He moved to Amarillo in 1983 and began performing autopsies for hire throughout the Texas panhandle region. Over the next decade Dr. Erdmann conducted more than 3,000 autopsies in 41 jurisdictions. In 1990, at the height of his activity, he performed 480 autopsies. The following year he did 310, most of which were performed in Lubbock County. For his work in Lubbock County, Dr. Erdmann received an annual fee of $140,000. In the smaller counties Dr. Erdmann charged $650 per autopsy. The forensic pathologist had a large territory to cover and was constantly on the move, performing autopsies on the run.

     Because he covered a rural area, Dr. Erdmann did not always work under ideal conditions. In cases of decomposing bodies, many of the smaller hospitals denied him access to autopsy space because of the stink. As a result he performed autopsies in funeral home garages, hospital loading docks, parking lots and abandoned houses. Dr. Erdmann once performed an autopsy on a door laid across two 55-gallon drums.

     It wasn't just his take-charge work ethic that made Dr. Erdmann so popular with detectives and county prosecutors. What they especially liked about this pathologist was his unabashed eagerness to tailor his autopsy findings to their law enforcement needs. If the prosecution needed a victim or suspect to have alcohol in his or her blood, that was not a problem. It didn't matter that no blood-alcohol test had been administered in the case. If a certain time of death was necessary to incriminate a defendant, Dr. Erdmann would provide it, even if such a precise estimation was scientifically infeasible.

     Because Dr. Erdmann made their jobs so easy, many detectives and prosecutors turned a blind eye to his personal weirdness, sloppy work habits, questionable science, embarrassing omissions and patent dishonesty. Even with the support of the law enforcement community, Dr. Erdmann was so obviously unfit for the job he was eventually drummed out of the profession.

     By 1992, after a number of defense attorneys began challenging and exposing Dr. Erdmann's methods and findings, the outlandish nature of his malpractice began to catch up to him. That year he was forced to surrender his Texas medical license to the State Board of Medical Examiners. He also pleaded guilty to charging several counties for autopsies he had not conducted. The judge sentenced Erdmann to 10 years of probation and 200 hours of community service. He also had to pay $17,000 in restitution. The following year Dr. Erdmann left Texas for the state of Washington.

     A review of Dr. Erdmann's work reveals that cutting corners allowed him to perform so many autopsies. For example, he didn't bother to weigh the internal organs he removed. And in many cases he didn't even bother to cut them out of the corpse. He simply estimated their weights. Dr. Erdmann got caught doing this when the family of a man he had autopsied noticed, in the autopsy report, the weight of the dead man's spleen. Years before his death this man's spleen had been surgically removed.

     Even in situations where the cause of death was obviously murder, Dr. Erdmann didn't always get it right. In the case of a body found in a dumpster, Dr. Erdmann reported the cause of death as pneumonia. The police later arrested the suspect who had stolen the dead man's car, shot him in the head, then disposed of his body in that dumpster. Perhaps this man had pneumonia when he was shot to death, but it was the bullet that killed him. In another body-in-the-dumpster case, Dr. Erdmann lost the dead man's head, the body part containing the fatal bullet that would have connected the shooter to the murder. Without the head or the bullet, the suspect could not be prosecuted.

     In a fatal hit-and-run case Dr. Erdmann testified that the victim had died instantly of a broken neck. He based this finding on his examination of the 14-year-old victim's brain. But when the body was exhumed, another forensic pathologist found that Erdmann had not even bothered to open the boy's skull.

     In the case of an infant who died in a bathtub, Dr. Erdmann determined that the baby had been killed by a blow to the stomach. This led to the arrest of the man who was in the house when the infant died. After a second forensic pathologist examined the body, the prosecutor had to drop the murder charge. The baby had drowned accidentally. The cause of death: asphyxia.

     As reported in the ABA Journal, as a result of Ralph Erdmann's bungled and incomplete autopsies, the defendants in 20 murder cases had grounds to appeal their convictions. The panel of experts who looked at 300 of his autopsy reports--a relatively small sampling--found that 1/3 of the bodies had not even been cut open. When confronted with this evidence, Dr. Erdmann explained it away as clerical errors. He never admitted wrongdoing and would continue to insist that he was not dishonest or incompetent. Yes, he had made a few mistakes, but he had been forced to work under unfavorable conditions. The forensic pathologist accused his critics of being revenge-minded defense attorneys and characterized the investigation of his work and career as a witch hunt.

     On July 23, 2010, in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Erdmann died at the age of 83.


  1. I know it's been quite a while since this article was published. I wanted to add a twisted element to Erdmann's case. Not only did prosecutors and police look the other way over his "questionable science," they allowed him to testify at trials, making conjectures which sounded like "science," which would sway the jury to a more punitive judgment for the defendant. My case was never reviewed. I did kill the man, for which I was convicted of voluntary manslaughter (domestic violence). The only reason this went to trial since I had confessed was because I was charged with premeditated murder, which was not the case. I was stalked, abused, and raped by the "victim." Because I'd had a prior relationship with him (and because this was long before the internet and awareness of domestic violence, I was given a 20-year sentence in the state penitentiary, based largely on the testimony of Erdmann. My lawyer during the case was a former prosecutor in the town and didn't want to "stir things up with his golfing buddies;" therefore he never reopened my case. In addition, my lawyer would never pursue that fact that members of the prosecution and police department were overheard in the bathroom by a friend of mine saying they purposefully and intentionally omitted my statement of rape (which occurred immediately prior to the shooting) from the police records before the trial. I'd never before committed a crime, and, yet served eight years out of a twenty-year sentence in a large part due to this man's testimony. Because I am a Christian, I forgave this man (and all involved) long ago for the transgressions. I know there is more justice in the afterlife than there is here on earth.

    1. I pray that you were able to be exonerated or pardoned so that you don't have a criminal record because of a jacked-up legal system.

    2. I know how the system works. The Johnny Lee Try case (Rey v State, 897 SW 2nd 333) was convicted of cap murder based on the false testimony of Erdmann.

  2. Your blog has given me that thing which I never expect to get from all over the websites. Nice post guys!

  3. The topic of Dr. Ralph Erdmann is of special interest to me because a false autopsy report and perjured testimony by a medical examiner resulted in the second degree murder conviction of Crystal Mangum. Crystal Mangum is notoriously known as the false accuser in the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case who on April 3, 2011 stabbed her boyfriend with a steak knife (she claims) in self-defense.

    Daye had a non-fatal stab wound to his left side which consisted of a laceration to his colon at the left flexure, and a minor lesion to his spleen. Following surgery, Daye had a prognosis for a complete recovery.

    On Daye's third post-op day, he developed D.T.s and the medical staff at Duke University Hospital, in the course of treating it, intubated him in his esophagus (documented by a negative End-tidal CO2 monitor). It was left in place until Daye shortly went into cardiac arrest. After CPR and re-intubation properly in the airway, the heart was resuscitated, but Daye was brain-dead. After a week of neurological observation without improvement Daye was removed from life-support and he died.

    The day following his death, the medical examiner Dr. Clay Nichols produced a fraudulent autopsy report fabricating the following injuries not supported by medical or hospital records: perforations to the left lung, diaphragm, stomach, and left kidney. Additionally he claimed there were multiple linear scabbed over lesions to his left upper extremity which he described as "defensive injuries." EMS at the scene and pre-op orthopedic surgery consult determined no injuries to Daye's extremities. Dr. Nichols concluded that Daye died as a result of complications of a stab wound to the chest. Based upon the medical examiner's autopsy, Crystal Mangum was indicted for first degree murder.

    In a November 2013 trial, Dr. Nichols testified that Daye's spleen had been removed a week and a half prior to his death during his emergency surgery... contradicting not only the operative report but also his own autopsy report in which he gave a weight for the organ and a description.

    Ms. Mangum was convicted of second degree murder, has been wrongfully imprisoned for six years with another dozen to go. The presiding trial judge, the North Carolina Attorney General, three NC governors, the Durham County District attorneys, and the mainstream media are all aware of the criminality by the medical examiner, but he has, in essence, been granted immunity by them all.

    The only source about the truth of Mangum's case, one of vengeance against the black single mother of three for her role as accuser in the Duke Lacrosse case is my blog site.

  4. I was a reporter when he was in Amarillo. We thought he was German and a genius because police praised him so much.

    1. I knew him well and yes I believe he was a genius. But very dumb as well. What he did hurt so many people, he was a disgrace to his profession.

  5. Mike Nifong, is that you? I'll have fries with that.

    1. Hey, Neirb.

      No. It’s Sidney Harr, M.D., a Nifong supporter and advocate and fiancé of Crystal Mangum, the Duke lacrosse accuser.

  6. I actually typed autopsies for Dr. Erdmann, both In Amarillo and Lubbock. He was difficult to work with and scatterbrained. Once he drove off with a stack of typed autopsies on the roof of his car, blown to the wind for all to see. Clerical error my …