Autopsy challenge from within in Mo. murder case

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(COLUMBIA, Mo., AP) — The scientific work of a former Boone County medical examiner and University of Missouri pathology professor is being challenged by five of his colleagues as a Kirksville man seeks a new trial in a woman’s 1997 drug-related death.

Former medical examiner Jay Dix’s ruling that Wendy Wagnon died from suffocation led to the 1999 Adair County convictions of both Jessie McKim and his uncle, James Peavler. Each was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Before Peavler died behind bars three years ago, he solicited sworn testimony from three medical examiners who said that Dix mistakenly labeled Wagnon’s cause of death as “asphyxiation by undetermined method,” in part because the coroner linked minor swelling in the victim’s eyelids — a condition known as petechiae — to asphyxiation.
Peavler passed his concerns on to McKim, who got similar assessments from two more pathologists. One of those expert witnesses, Eddie Adelstein, a Missouri pathology professor who succeeded Dix as county medical examiner, worked alongside him at the university and remains an assistant Boone medical examiner. Adelstein testified that his former colleague’s conclusion for the cause of death “does not meet even the lowest standards of reasonable medical certainty.”
“We are all interested in justice, and while there may be other factors that I do not know, based on this review, Mr. McKim has not received justice,” Adelstein concluded, finding that Wagnon likely died from a methamphetamine overdose.
A Cole County judge is scheduled to hear an update in McKim’s post-conviction appeal on Monday. Defense attorney Jennifer Bukowsky called the challenges to Dix’s interpretation — and authority — significant, not just for scientific reasons.
Dix was a highly respected official who left Columbia for a job as deputy medical examiner for New York City before returning to Missouri two years later. He continued to teach at Mizzou, where he was named chief of forensic pathology, and helped write the state’s guidelines for child death investigations. He died of cancer in 2002 at 54, and is memorialized in an annual Columbia charity road race that bears his name.
“What Dix relied on has been soundly refuted by medical science,” Bukowsky said in an interview. “There’s no way (my client) would have been convicted here without that diagnosis. There wasn’t a murder.”
State prosecutors remain convinced they helped punish those responsible for the crime. In a 36-page response to McKim’s innocence claim, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office challenges McKim’s legal authority to bring the complaint forward, noting that several appeals court judges have already rejected similar petitions.
And even if Dix’s conclusion was wrong, other evidence “strongly supports McKim’s guilt,” assistant attorney general Michael Spillane wrote in the June 4 reply. The prosecutor cites trial testimony from a Wagnon friend who said McKim and Peavler discussed purposely injecting Wagnon — whom they considered a snitch for her plans to testify in an upcoming drug trial — with a lethal overdose of drugs. A McKim friend also testified that McKim described holding Wagnon at gunpoint and putting her in a fatal headlock.
But no needle marks were found on Wagnon’s body. And the same friend who implicated the two men acknowledged going on a two-day binge with Wagnon and cooking and smoking meth with her. Dix submitted his cause of death before receiving written copies of Wagnon’s toxicology tests, though the state said he had received an oral report of the drug test results.
The defense experts include a pathology professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine who previously taught at Harvard, a third pathology professor at Missouri, and the pathology chairman of the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.
McKim also cites a 1998 guide to forensic pathology co-written by Dix in which he seemingly contradicts his autopsy finding in Wagnon’s death one year earlier.
“It is important to note that petechiae are not specific for asphyxiation and may occur in people who die suddenly from other causes, such as heart disease,” Dix wrote.