‘Embarrassed’ medical examiner abruptly retires

At MyAJC.com, read the AJC investigation that led to the medical examiner's departure: Conflicts abounded as GBI's top pathologist took hundred of cases.

Georgia’s chief medical examiner has abruptly quit, following reports he had built a lucrative private business out of his state job.

Dr. Kris Sperry’s retirement formally takes effect Nov. 1, but he is on leave until then. He vacated the medical examiner’s office Thursday, said his boss, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan.

He was “acutely embarrassed” and “remorseful,” Keenan said Friday, over revelations that he had claimed hundreds of work hours at the GBI when he actually was working for clients of his forensic-science consulting firm.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a lengthy investigation last weekend reporting that Sperry had taken on more than 500 cases as a paid forensic expert and that his moonlighting had created conflicts of interest and undermined his scientific and medical judgment.

In addition, the newspaper found, on 67 days since 2010, Sperry reported working at least eight hours for the state when he spent time out of the office giving depositions or testifying in court for private clients. For 13 of those days, Sperry signed time sheets claiming a full day at the GBI even though he was testifying as an expert witness in out-of-state trials.

Filing false time sheets is a crime for state employees, with a penalty of one to five years in prison. Keenan said last week he thought Sperry’s discrepancies resulted from sloppy record keeping, and the GBI docked him the equivalent of 5 ½ weeks of vacation and other accrued leave time to compensate the state.

On Friday, Keenan said he had referred the matter to the state attorney general’s office. He said he wants the attorney general to “advise if further action needs to be taken.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Sam Olens declined to comment.

Sperry, 60, became Georgia’s first chief medical examiner in 1997. He oversaw a staff of 13 other pathologists who conduct autopsies and issue rulings on the cause and manner of more than 3,000 deaths a year. The state paid Sperry about $184,000 a year.

But Sperry’s outside work roughly doubled his state salary, he has said in depositions and courtroom testimony. His private caseload, the Journal-Constitution found, rivaled that from his state job.

He appeared in court 42 times as a private expert from 2010 to 2014 – but just 13 times as the state medical examiner. During the same period, he accepted 158 outside cases for review while performing only 208 full autopsies for the medical examiner’s office (where other pathologists conduct as many as 300 a year). Sperry declined to comment about his outside work, but he told Keenan in a memo that he didn’t recollect details of many of those cases.

Lawyers and other adversaries repeatedly accused Sperry of tailoring his testimony to the needs of his private clients. The Journal-Constitution reported that other pathologists strongly criticized Sperry’s testimony against a former New Orleans police officer accused of murdering a man after Hurricane Katrina. Sperry described in detail the gunshot wound he said killed the man, even though he had been burned so severely that little remained but pieces of tissue and no bullet was ever found. One of the pathologists called Sperry’s conclusions “junk science.”

The newspaper also reported that Sperry had at least twice provided clients with opinions that contradicted his own deputies. Other pathologists described that practice as unprofessional.

Sperry built a national reputation from several highly publicized GBI cases, most notably one involving hundreds of bodies dumped on the grounds of a crematory in North Georgia. He also linked a spree of violence by the professional wrestler Chris Benoit to his use of performance-enhancing steroids. More recently, Sperry defended his office’s ruling that the death of Kendrick Johnson, a teenager from Valdosta whose body was found in a rolled-up wrestling mat, was accidental.

Sperry’s supervisors at the GBI consistently praised his performance. In 2011, Keenan added a handwritten note to a printed evaluation: Dr. Kris Sperry is an excellent leader of the M.E. system in Georgia.”

On Friday, Keenan said the decision to retire was Sperry’s. He added: “I respect his decision, of course.”