Meet Werner Spitz, the 95-Year-Old ‘Medical Detective’

Death waits for no man—especially not a forensic pathologist.

Dr. Werner Spitz was contacted by a woman who wanted to discuss the tragic death of her 2-year-old daughter on Christmas Eve 2008. Spitz was soon on his next flight to Orlando. Although the task was not new to Spitz, he has never lost sight of it in his long career.

“I remember that to this very day. I walked into the funeral home, and here was this long, long hallway—unilluminated because by the time I got to Orlando, it was dark,” Spitz recalls. The funeral home, aside from a gurney with stacks upon boxes, was abandoned by 11 p.m.

Caylee Antony was the one who owned the skeletal remains. Her mother, Casey Anthony, had been indicted for her daughter’s murder, and Anthony’s defense lawyer was seeking a medical opinion. Spitz spent Christmas Eve looking at the skull. Spitz left Michigan after completing his research and packed up. Spitz could not decide if the mother was guilty or innocent. Casey Anthony was ultimately acquitted of murder and manslaughter. All he could do was give his best account of how he thought the girl died—including his assessment that the evidence on the body did not confirm the state’s version of what had happened to Caylee—and leave the rest up to the lawyers, judge, and jury.

Spitz enjoyed the day with his grandchildren and children, opening presents together. That kind of shift from grappling with violent death to enjoying the pleasures of daily life has always been part of his job, but that doesn’t make it easy. “It isn’t really a matter of it being hard for me to do it because I’ve done lots of such cases. But I then go home and go to sleep, and I dream about it, and it’s horrible,” he says.

To the philosopher or the cleric, death is an enigmatic thing, but to the forensic pathologist—a doctor who deals in the traumatic injuries of violent deaths—it is a science requiring patience, time, and the proper tools. Spitz is the founder of modern forensic pathology and the author of the textbook that remains the standard for the profession today. Although lawyers, judges and police are perhaps the most common players in the justice system’s machinery, doctors such as Spitz, who travel from place to place with his supplies of medical equipment, perform the necessary science to solve criminal cases. The body is always there to witness a crime. The American story has taken shape because of the body interpretations Spitz was assigned.

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Spitz is 95 and has over six decades experience. He played a part in several famous cases including John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s trial, and O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector, and the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez; the killing of JonBenet Ramsey. He’s conducted thousands of autopsies, and he has no interest in retirement. (Golf bores me, he said. He’d much rather spend his days looking for the small clue—an abrasion, a tiny puncture in the skin, an impacted skull—that solves a mysterious death.

“It’s like being a medical detective,” says Spitz. To him, a gunshot wound is not a hole in the body: it’s an event that leaves all manner of evidence, from metal fragments and broken vertebrae to clothing fibers and contusions. As Spitz explains: “The bullet doesn’t tell you anything. The skin tells you.”

Spitz is not a stranger to death. His parents, a German-born Jew sent him to Paris to live with his aunt in the 1933 year Hitler was elected chancellor. “My mother realized that we better get out of here before it’s too late,” he says.

Spitz was raised by doctors parents. Spitz attended Geneva medical school and Israel’s Israel Medical School. As a punishment, he was first introduced to his future specialty. To keep Spitz away from friends his father deemed “mischief-makers,” he was sent to shadow the city hospital chief in Tel Aviv in the department of pathology every summer. Spitz watched as the examiner performed autopsies to support police investigations. “I went to watch autopsies, every single autopsy that occurred,” he recalls.

After becoming a physician, he lived in Israel for seven years and was only assigned to one case. This sounds like something out of a movie.,The murderer was a bagel vendor at the bus depot. One vendor raised the prices and was attacked by the other. There wasn’t much to solve, as the crime had taken place in public, and the perpetrator, motive, and means were all clear. Spitz was still moved by this incident. He wanted to find a place with more difficult crimes to study and he began looking for ways to get to the U.S. He doesn’t smile at death, but he can’t help but chuckle at the fact that a change in bagel prices would take him out of the Tel Aviv morgue and set him on a new path.

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Coincidence, in retrospect, can seem like destiny. So it was that Dr. Spitz happened to be traveling by ship for a job in the Maryland medical examiner’s office in November 1963. It was 100 miles from New York Harbor that the ship had to stop due to a national emergency. President Kennedy was assassinated the night before it was scheduled for dock. Shock and confusion settled across the passengers, stunned by the president’s murder. “It was a ship with many decks, and I walked around everywhere, and everywhere there were collections of people listening to shortwave radios that would tell what happened. Everybody was speculating,” he says. “It was a terrible experience. The ship was all dark: there was no light, no music, no dancing, no nothing.”

Little did he know, Spitz would be the one to dispel much of the speculation that sprung up around Kennedy’s assassination. Spitz developed expertise in the field over the following decade. He taught at Johns Hopkins University, and was eventually named chief medical inspector of Wayne County, Michigan. In the 1970s, a government committee called him to reexamine the autopsy performed after Kennedy’s assassination. “At that time, the knowledge of forensic pathology was at its bottom,” Spitz said of the 1960s. “People looked upon a gunshot wound like a hole in the skin. But it’s not a hole in the skin! Absolutely not.”

In Washington, D.C., Spitz sifted through all the evidence—the autopsy report, the clothes Kennedy had been wearing, enormous color photographs of the cadaver. “I could see every pore in the President’s face,” he recalls. The errors in the autopsy were so numerous, according to Spitz, that he went so far as to call the procedure “botched.” To a veteran forensic pathologist, one error stuck out in particular. Spitz said that the exit wound was mistaken for the entrance in Kennedy’s neck shot. Spitz though, saw no evidence. His clothing and broken skin pointed in the opposite direction.

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By identifying the puncture in Kennedy’s throat as an exit wound, Spitz was able to dispel one of the most prevalent conspiracies: the “grassy knoll” theory, or the idea that there was a second shooter, in front of the President, in addition to Lee Harvey Oswald who was behind him.

“In both the President and in Martin Luther King’s case, the mistakes were made by people who have a rank in society that enables them to offer opinions,” Spitz said. “But they were wrong.” Called to reexamine the findings in King’s assassination, Spitz uncovered similar such mistakes. King had been hit from the side of the street, while he was standing on his balcony. He had tiny pieces of dust or sand stuck to his face. The substance, thought to have been gunpowder was misinterpreted by investigators. This would have meant that King would have been fired in the face from close range. Spitz proved the absence of gunpowder and was therefore able to establish that the victim died from a long-range shooting.

Although some of these discoveries may seem obvious now, others were not apparent at the time. In the United States, forensics was more often considered junk science. The American Board of Pathology started certifying physicians in this specialty in 1959. This was the first time that forensic pathology in America was recognized. Before this time, witnesses or forced confessions were often all that was needed to conduct murder investigations. However, today’s researchers know that such testimony can be highly suspect. Most of the evidence that law enforcement was able to collect was made up pseudoscience, such as anthropometry. In the 1970s gunshot residue detection became possible. Police forces still had years to solve crimes using DNA evidence. Spitz, thanks to his training abroad­—where forensic pathology was more advanced—supplied much needed expertise.

The field advanced swiftly in the following decades, but Spitz’s talent sometimes seems to go beyond his knowledge of the science involved. Diane Lucke has been Spitz’s right hand since the 1970s, beginning work as his phono-typist and going on to assist him in many cases. Lucke recalls a 1990 investigation into a nursing home where he found a body of mutilated remains. His findings were then distributed in multiple garbage bags. Spitz discovered a very small skull fracture, which he believed was the cause of her death. On his suggestion, the police searched her ex-husband’s house, located a receipt from a hardware store and identified his purchase: a wood-splitting wedge. “It fit perfectly into the wound, into the injury in the skull,” Lucke said. “A number of people wouldn’t have even paid attention to that or wouldn’t have observed it in all this mess, because the body was so badly decomposed.” The ex-husband was convicted.

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This discovery could seem like something out of a mystery book, and Sherlock Holmes might be able to uncover the truth quickly. This may be why forensic pathologists are sometimes referred to as “oracles” by the public, who believe they can reconstruct ironclad Clue-like situations. The discipline has made great strides, but it’s far from an exact science. Even undisputed evidence, such as DNA, has been proven to be flawed. Prejudice, even racial base can affect medical examiners. As expert witnesses, they can also earn big money—as much as $5,000 a day, according to some reports. And Spitz himself has come in for criticism over the years: JonBenet Ramsey’s brother sued him for defamation, though he later dropped the lawsuit. Spitz does not always stand on the side the victim. Spitz insists that whether he’s contracted by the defense or the prosecution, he can’t be bought. For instance, after being hired by the defense for Michael Peterson, the so-called “staircase killer,” Spitz was not called to the stand because his medical opinion was deemed damaging to the defense. (Peterson received a guilty verdict.

“An expert witness needs to be courageous when it comes time and to say he doesn’t know the answer,” Spitz tells me. “He must say openly, ‘You know, Your Honor, I’m sorry, but I do not have another opinion than the one I gave.’ Or say ‘I don’t know what the answer is.’ We do not know everything. We know a lot, but we don’t know everything.”

Spitz in the witness box is persuasiveHe once pulled a skull from a bag and used it to prove a point, much like a contemporary Shakespeare actor. O.J. was a civil witness in his case. Simpson, he was unequivocal, describing the blow that killed Nicole Brown Simpson as a “devastating slash” that “[cut the] voice box in two, entering the bone of the vertebral column.” He speaks with an accent somewhere between German and Israeli, discussing stab wounds and leaky brain matter with an ease that comes from dealing in death for nearly three quarters of a century.

Dr. Henry Lee, a forensic scientist who has worked on many cases with Spitz—including those of Michael Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey, and Phil Spector—compared their work to that of a small part in a big symphony. “In a symphony, you have the director, you have the musicians. We’re just a musical instrument,” Lee says. “Just like a symphony, the audience decides to like this piece of music or not. It’s not the musical instrument. Whether a jury finds someone guilty or not, that’s not up to us.”

At the same time, Spitz seems keenly aware of the responsibility in his hands, whether in the morgue or on the witness stand, and it’s what continues to motivate him in his seventh decade on the job. Lucke, Spitz’s assistant, recalls one of their most significant cases: the 1987 Northwest Flight 255 crash. After taking off from Detroit, the plane struck a light pole and crashed onto a nearby highway. The accident resulted in several people being killed, including a four-year old girl, whose miracle survival remains a mystery. Due to the magnitude of the collision, just a few victims of the crash were recognizable visually. All others needed to be identified using fingerprints and dental records. Spitz, Lucke and their colleagues had years of combined experience. However, this was an exceptional case. Whole families were decimated within minutes. Spitz was able to help parents identify the remains of two to three children who had been killed in that accident.

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Although the crash site was only a few minutes from their home, it appeared like an area of war, complete with human and debris scattered across the roads. They set up an emergency room in an aircraft hangar with sawhorses and no medical tables. “It got to the point where he sent me out with the families, and he went back in with the bodies, because he was crying with the families,” Lucke recalls. Spitz doesn’t seem to be immune from the pain and suffering surrounding his work. It’s something he thinks and talks about a lot: Was this person in pain? He was aware that he was on the verge of death. Beyond the legal ramifications, the answers to those questions are often the first things a victim’s family wants to know. It’s why he has an easier time dealing with dead bodies than with living victims. He explains it to me this way: the bodies aren’t suffering any more. Their suffering is now over. Post-mortem, Spitz can give their families perhaps not something as pat as closure, but at least answers about someone’s final moments.

“I’ve seen a lot, because of my age,” he says. “I’m still working because I enjoy the work. Because I love the work. Because you gain a greater or more complete understanding of things over time. You learn by exposure to things that, at one point you didn’t understand, and later on in life, you do.”

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