The state’s Medical Examiners Commission has recommended disciplinary actions for two local medical examiners who were involved in the investigation into the 2010 death of Michelle O’Connell.
At their Feb. 24 meeting, the commission voted to file administrative complaints against District 23 Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Predrag Bulic, and associate medical examiner Dr. Frederick Hobin, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman Jessica Cary.
The vote came after a Feb. 7 panel found probable cause that both men violated Florida statutes and “practice guidelines” in their handling — and their office’s handling — of documents associated with the O’Connell case.
The panel’s findings are listed in a Feb. 16 memo that was forwarded to the commission for their vote. The memo’s existence was first reported by The Record’s news partner First Coast News on Monday night.
O’Connell died of a gunshot wound through her mouth on Sept. 2, 2010, in the home of her boyfriend Jeremy Banks, who was, and still is, a St. Johns County sheriff’s deputy. The gun that fired the fatal shot was Banks’ service weapon.
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office led the initial investigation and the death was eventually ruled a suicide by the local medical examiner’s office, but members of O’Connell’s family have said she wouldn’t have killed herself, and some have questioned the integrity of the original investigation and believe Banks is responsible, though he has denied any wrongdoing.
The death became the subject a high-profile New York Times story in 2013 and a related piece from PBS “Frontline” that raised questions about the original investigation as well as the Sheriff’s Office and Medical Examiner’s Office handling of the case.
Two governor-appointed special prosecutors have found that there is not enough evidence to suggest that a homicide occurred.
Members of the O’Connell family, though, have remained steadfast in their belief that their loved one was killed, even going so far as having a private exhumation carried out in January 2016.
Findings from the exhumation and subsequent autopsy weren’t released until May, when the nationally syndicated television show “Crime Watch Daily” revealed that an independent pathologist had found a fracture in O’Connell’s lower jaw.
Some speculated that could be evidence that O’Connell had been battered prior to the fatal shot being fired and noted that the fracture was left out of the initial autopsy report.
That omission was addressed in the panel’s memo and was among seven possible violations of statutes or guidelines that panel members investigated.
While the fracture was not listed in the autopsy report, it was “obvious in the X-ray taken during the autopsy,” the memo says.
“The Panel determined that the image of the fracture constituted documentation, but that it should have been noted in the autopsy report, and that the failure to do so was poor record keeping,” it says. “However, the Panel felt that this did not rise to the level of negligence.”
According to the memo, the panel convened after receiving a formal complaint against Bulic and Hobin from private investigator Clu Wright, as well as follow-up complaints from Michelle O’Connell’s sister Jennifer Crites and her mother Patty O’Connell.
Wright, who has served as a spokesman and investigator for the family, alleged in his complaint that Hobin, who did the original autopsy, failed to perform an appropriate review of the medical information presented at the time of Michelle O’Connell’s death and that he conducted an incomplete investigation into the cause and manner of death.
Wright also alleged that Bulic allowed him to view the autopsy photos when he was not the next of kin and had not secured permission from the legal next of kin to review the photos.
Crites’ and Patty O’Connell’s complaints echo that allegation, according to the memo, as well as the allegation that Hobin did not document the broken jaw.
They also claimed that Hobin and Medical Examiner’s Office Investigator Kent Holloway kept records and files related to the investigation in their homes and that the files in Hobin’s possession had not been incorporated into the original case file.
Ultimately, the panel found that Hobin violated statute and guidelines “because he maintained part of his investigative findings, amended autopsy findings, and amended death certificate at his home.”
Hobin also violated guidelines, the memo says, by “failure to have complete notes and the investigative report in the files maintained within the medical examiner’s office.”
The panel also found that Bulic violated statute and guidelines by “failing to have a clear policy in place to dissuade such activity, and his apparent unawareness that the file for Michelle O’Connell’s death investigation housed in the medical examiner’s office was incomplete.”
Bulic also violated Florida statute “by allowing a staff member to provide autopsy photographs to a person who was not the legal next of kin, and did not have the permission of the legal next of kin to view the autopsy photographs.”
Cary said the votes for the administrative complaints also came with proposed disciplinary actions.
For Hobin — who Cary said is a part-time associate examiner serving District 23 and District 8 — the panel proposed a 6-month suspension.
Bulic could be facing a 1-year probation which could terminate early upon enacting policies that address the shortfalls listed in the memo.
Both men have 21 days to review the findings and respond, Cary said.
The memo also noted that the office of St. Johns County attorney Patrick McCormack was slow to respond to requests for documents related to the case and at one point “required staff to provide statutory authority before providing other necessary documents and photographs.”
McCormack told The Record on Tuesday that that was not an accurate depiction of how his office responded to the panel’s requests, saying that he and his staff were “meticulous” in their response.
“We are very comfortable with the timeline,” he said “We did not delay whatsoever.”
He was also comfortable with having pushed back on the state’s panel by asking them to provide statutory authority.
“The bottom line is that some of the information is confidential,” he said of the autopsy report. “And we don’t care who is asking, we wanted to make sure that we have the authority to provide it.”