The Telltale Corpse

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

Whittaker concluded that it would have been nearly impossible for Mejia, sitting on the driver's side, to shoot through the passenger-side sun visor; the shot had entered from the right and traveled upward toward the left. And the idea of Mejia somehow shooting himself in the head was even more unlikely. "It would be almost impossible for a person to be holding a pistol and shoot himself at that angle," he asserts. "Plus he had his own gun, a 9mm, locked in the dash in a holster." It would have been easy enough to use that weapon, not hers.

"This was a fun case," says Whittaker. "I reviewed the evidence and Mejia's story. I looked at the automobile and took photographs of [the sun visor]. I saw a total absence of gunpowder, which indicated to me that the muzzle of the weapon was well outside the car -- six, twelve, or fourteen inches -- when the shot went through the sun visor. Plus I studied photographs of Mejia's injury."

The police version of events, he contends, was implausible: "She's getting out of the car and he dives across with a gun to shoot her? Why didn't he just sit there and shoot her? The whole thing was just absurd." Whittaker explained all this to the prosecutor and police. "They had arrested the wrong person. The cops charged him with attempted murder, but she didn't suffer any injuries. It was an example of poor, poor police work." But the prosecutor refused to drop the charges. So Whittaker drafted a letter to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, claiming the case had been poorly investigated by the police, with no proper crime lab followup. "I then called both the detective and the prosecutor on the case and read the letter to them," he recalls. "I threatened to put it in the mail if they didn't do something. A couple days later they dropped all charges."

Miami homicide detective Catherine Carter scoffs at Whittaker's interpretation of the shooting, calling it "patently ridiculous." Mejia refused to talk with the police, she argues, while Matamoros gave a "very plausible story." But Whittaker claims that Carter is being defensive. "What's obvious is that [the Miami police's] reconstruction of the case was patently ridiculous," Whittaker says, pointing out as proof that the prosecutor's office dropped the case.

The lead prosecutor, Robert de la Fuente, is now in private practice in Miami but was out of town last week and unavailable for comment. His interoffice memo, however, lends credibility to the criminalist's allegations. For example, Whittaker notes, it was later established that Matamoros had purchased her gun for $40 on the street a few months before the shooting. De la Fuente's memo backs this up: A witness for the defense, he wrote, testified about the "sale of a gun by that witness to the victim shortly before the shooting."

De la Fuente disclosed in the memo that the case was dropped for a number of reasons, including concerns about Matamoros's credibility and the "different versions" of events she told. There were witnesses, too, who didn't verify her account, and she expressed a desire to drop all charges against her former boyfriend.

In his memo De la Fuente also hinted that the crime scene team might have botched the job: "Presumably the automobile where the shooting took place was thoroughly processed. All of the shells and bullets were not accounted for. At a later date, however, the defense attorney inspected the vehicle with Det. Carter. It was only at this time that an additional bullet was discovered, by the DEFENSE ATTORNEY [capital letters added by De la Fuente], lodged in the visor. The positioning of this bullet was consistent with the defense's version of the parties' positions during the shooting."

Matamoros was never charged with shooting Mejia, even after charges against him evaporated.

When Whittaker talks about crime scene evidence, his voice assumes a tone of hushed reverence. But he shows irritation when he discusses evidence improperly handled by police, or misinterpreted by prosecutors, or misdiagnosed by crime lab scientists who should know better.

As an example, he is contemptuous of Drs. Henry Lee and Michael Baden, and Professor Herbert MacDonnell, the three forensic scientists who testified on behalf of O.J. Simpson during his murder trial. Caustically referring to them as the "Terrible Trio," Whittaker says he doesn't understand how such respected scientists could "go to court, take the oath, and testify" on Simpson's behalf. "They participated in the defense of an obviously guilty man, for whatever reason I don't know," Whittaker says, his voice heavy with scorn.

"Ed is probably one of the most ethical examiners I have ever dealt with," remarks Dennis McGuire, another retired crime lab staffer who now works as a consultant. "He will spend considerable time convincing himself of the validity of the physical evidence before he issues an opinion. He agonizes over getting the right answer."

Such dedication helped Whittaker and the crime lab establish some heady standards for top-rate lab work around the world, along with several important technical innovations. Whittaker built the first vertical shoot tank for bullet recovery in the United States. This device is used to help establish that identifying marks on bullets fired from suspect weapons match those of bullets found at crime scenes. His lab was also very likely one of the few in the country to independently verify that the accepted 0.15 blood alcohol standard is, indeed, the correct one to apply in drunk driving cases, and that this level of alcohol in the blood can be reliably determined by checking a driver's breath with a Breathalyzer.

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