Certificates say chief medical examiner did full fellowship

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / October 7, 2010

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Massachusetts public safety officials released documents yesterday that indicate the state’s chief medical examiner completed a two-year fellowship in forensic pathology in 1997, contradicting an accusation by a former top official that Dr. Henry M. Nields never finished the program.

But his accuser, Dr. Stanton C. Kessler, a former acting chief medical examiner who for years oversaw the fellowship program, said he stood by his allegation. He challenged the authenticity of the newly released records, fueling what has quickly become a highly charged public dispute.

The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security provided two certificates that said Nields completed, on June 30, 1997, a two-year fellowship that he served at both the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

Public safety officials also released payroll and attendance records and a death certificate that he had signed, showing that Nields worked as a contract employee for the medical examiner’s office in 1998.

“We have done a thorough review of our internal records and spoken to Dr. Nields’ supervisors at the time in question, and the facts clearly contradict the allegations,’’ said John A. Grossman, undersecretary of forensic science and technology for the public safety office, which oversees the medical examiner.

“The facts show Dr. Nields completed his fellowship in good standing and then worked at the OCME as a contract physician until he left Boston to assume a position’’ with the New York City medical examiner’s office.

The public safety office provided the documents the day after an unusual affidavit signed by Kessler was filed in Barnstable Superior Court by lawyers for Christopher McCowen, the Hyannis trash collector convicted in the 2002 rape and murder of Truro fashion writer Christa Worthington.

Kessler, who said he oversaw the fellowship program from 1989 to 2001, alleged in the affidavit that Nields left abruptly in early 1997 after exhibiting “anger management issues’’ and other problems. Kessler said he had informed Nields that his work was inadequate and that he would not be offered a job.

Kessler also alleged that Nields falsely claimed he had completed the fellowship when he applied in March 2000 for certification by the American Board of Pathology.

And, in perhaps the most explosive accusation, Kessler alleged that his signature had been forged on an application and reference that Nields submitted to the board to show he completed the program.

Yesterday, Kessler said he stuck by his affidavit, even though his purported signature is one of three on the 1997 certificate of completion that Nields received from the medical examiner’s office.

“Any documents produced now by the OCME that are related to this case that are more than 13 years old purporting to contain my signature are fraudulent,’’ Kessler, who left the office in 2001 and now teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

“My affidavit stands as filed, and the witnesses and the evidence support my claims against him. I did not at any time sign and/or certify Nields’s application to sit for the ABP boards in forensic pathology in 2000, since I had not seen or heard from him after he left the OCME.’’

Forensic pathologists need not be certified by the Florida-based pathology board to practice, but many seek certification to distinguish themselves. Pathologists apply for certification after completing required training and must pass a rigorous test.

Nields’ credentials are an issue in the McCowen murder case because he was a witness for the prosecution. He testified that he was a board-certified pathologist when describing his qualifications to discuss Worthington’s autopsy results.

McCowen’s lawyer, Robert A. George, of Boston, filed Kessler’s affidavit in a motion for a new trial Tuesday, writing that Nields would have had no credibility if “the jury had known that Nields had obtained his certification in pathology through fraud.’’

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe dismissed the motion as “silly’’ Tuesday and accused McCowen’s defense lawyers of engaging in “what appears to be character assassination.’’

Nields, who was appointed chief medical examiner by the Patrick administration in October 2009 and earns $250,000 a year, issued a one-sentence statement Tuesday saying, “I categorically deny the allegations in the affidavit, and I’m confident the Chief Medical Examiner at that time will agree that the allegations are false.’’

He was referring to Dr. Richard J. Evans, whose signature also appears on the 1997 certificate of completion from the medical examiner’s office. In an interview Tuesday night, Evans said he believed that Nields did finish the fellowship program and worked as a contract employee in the office for about a year.

Legal specialists say the bizarre dispute may end up in a courtroom for an evidentiary hearing, with Kessler and Nields on the witness stand, if a judge rules that the truth might determine whether McCowen received a fair trial.

The controversy comes after years of upheaval at the medical examiner’s office and problems including underfunding, shrinking staff, and repeated mistakes. A scathing independent review of the office in 2007 found it was on the “verge of collapse’’ from extreme mismanagement.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at

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