The Telltale Corpse

Ed Whittaker, Dade's leading criminalist, finds a lively story in every dead body

"You take dismemberment, body parts hacked off and dumped all over the county, even the eating of someone's liver. But worse than that," says Ed Whittaker, "is charging an innocent person with a crime, taking him to trial, convicting him, then electrocuting him. To me that's the worst crime that can be committed."

For nearly 30 years Whittaker headed the Dade County Sheriff's Office Crime Laboratory Bureau (now the Miami-Dade Police Department Crime Laboratory). There he analyzed all kinds of evidence -- bloodstains, semen traces, fingerprints, skeletal remains, bullet and gunpowder markings, bomb fragments, poison residues, and other gruesome evidence of murder, assault, rape, and general mayhem. But that was only half the job. He then rendered opinions of his findings in court to bring suspected criminals to justice. He has testified an astonishing 3200 times.

Whittaker has witnessed the very worst that one person can do to another and is an ardent advocate of capital punishment. A primary purpose of police departments and crime labs, he says with a hard gleam in his eye, is "to identify the bad guy, take him to court, and then burn his butt." Yet here's a seasoned police veteran who also says he'd rather see murderers and rapists go free than stand by while even one innocent person is wrongly convicted. When he retired from the crime lab in 1986, he hung out his shingle as a freelance criminalist, and these days he offers expert testimony for the defense in cases he believes result from shoddy police work or overeager prosecutors.

A Miami resident, Whittaker is a youthful-looking 76 years old. His handshake is firm and his eyes are sharp, even though he lost most of the vision in his right eye after a childhood baseball accident. He brightens when he talks about his favorite topic: evidence. "It's fun," he says, flashing a warm smile. "You work the evidence and sometimes something pops up pretty quick, but other times you have to sweat it out and work it hard. In most cases, though, the answer does come out." Whittaker has lived alone since a divorce 24 years ago. Two daughters he seldom sees live in California. He sometimes visits another daughter, who lives in south Dade, in what he calls "avocado country." He has no hobbies and engages in few activities other than reading scientific and technical journals. His one passion is solving evidence puzzles -- for him, it's the straw that stirs the drink.

Whittaker is one of just a handful of professional criminalists working in South Florida today. Despite the fact that he can earn up to $1400 per day, plus expenses, he turns down most cases. "I've probably been called on about 300 cases in twelve years," he says, "but I accepted only 21, based on being told vigorously about the physical evidence. I nail down these [attorneys] when they try to give me gobbledygook. Give me some answers instead. What kind of evidence was recovered? Who ran it? In what crime lab? What does the lab report say? If the evidence shows that X, Y, and Z occurred, I put it together in my head and say it's a lock: 'These guys don't make that kind of mistake on that kind of evidence. And since the evidence is against your client, I can't help you.' It's that simple."

Getting Whittaker to talk about those cases he has accepted is easy. His side has won all of them, for one thing. A prominent example: the case of Merry Pease, a Virginia housewife charged with shooting and killing her husband in 1993. Pease, who suffered a serious gunshot wound in the incident, claimed that her husband shot her and then killed himself. The prosecution, however, maintained that she shot her husband twice, then turned the gun on herself to appear the victim.

Pease's attorney contacted the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the largest and most prestigious body of forensic scientists in the world, for the name of an expert who might testify on her behalf. He was referred to the academy's former president: Ed Whittaker.

"Merry had been shot just through the midline to the left of her navel," Whittaker recalls, thumbing through the case file. "It was almost a straight-through shot, with the bullet going through her abdominal muscle, liver, pancreas, stomach, kidney, and then exiting near the backbone. The prosecutor was calling it a self-inflicted alibi gunshot wound. The case was the biggest joke I'd ever seen in my life."

Self-inflicted alibi gunshot wounds are extremely rare, he explains in his easy but authoritative manner. "I did a lot of checking, put notices on [computer] bulletin boards, and contacted homicide dicks around the country. I asked for any information about self-inflicted alibi gunshot wounds. The only report I got back was from Mike Gonzalez [former head of the Miami Police Department's homicide unit]. He had one case where the bad guy killed this other man, then pinched himself above his belt, pulled the skin out like a little flap, held it, and fired a shot though it. Mike said everybody was fooled until the doctor who treated the guy called police and said there was something wrong with the injury."

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