CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Working in a makeshift lab in a bombed-out building, an Army pathologist dipped her gloved hands into a decomposing corpse -- and changed the lives of nine Marines.
Running her fingers along a fragile, U-shaped bone in the throat of a dead Iraqi prisoner, Colonel Kathleen Ingwersen felt a break. She concluded that the man had been strangled -- that Nagem Sadoon Hatab was the first victim of homicide in prisons the US military set up in Iraq.
However, since the autopsy that pathologists considered surprisingly conclusive under difficult circumstances, the case has fallen apart.
Tissue samples that Ingwersen's team collected as evidence decomposed when they were left outside in 126-degree heat; Ingwersen said organs turned to ''goo." The rib cage and larynx vanished, then resurfaced a year later at military labs on two continents. She conceded that she doesn't know what became of the broken hyoid bone that strongly indicated strangulation.
Nine Marines faced courts-martial in Hatab's death but most of the cases were dismissed, in part because of the forensic breakdown. The sole conviction came in September, when a military panel convicted Sergeant Gary Pittman of dereliction of duty and abuse of prisoners -- but acquitted him of assaulting Hatab. He was sentenced to 60 days of hard labor and demoted to private.
Today, prosecutors have their final chance to salvage the case when court-martial proceedings begin at this base north of San Diego for the last defendant.
Major Clarke Paulus, 35, faces up to 4 years in military prison if he is convicted on charges of aggravated assault, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment.
During pretrial testimony, Ingwersen apologized for a case that has cast an unwanted spotlight on the military's coroner, the highly regarded Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, and has underscored concerns that the demands of war may be stretching the small military medical examiner system too far.
Paulus was in charge of the jail at Camp Whitehorse in southern Iraq where Hatab was taken as a suspect in the attack on an Army convoy that killed 11 soldiers and led to the capture of Private First Class Jessica Lynch. Paulus is accused of ordering a subordinate to drag Hatab by the neck. Hatab died a short time later.
The flawed medical evidence has become a major asset for Paulus's defense. The military judge hearing the case has said that the bungling may prompt him to bar all medical evidence.
Christopher Kelly, spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Md., which includes the medical examiner's office, said he could not comment on an ongoing case. He did say that the medical examiner system is fully capable of handling its responsibilities in war.
Dr. Glenn N. Wagner, who directed the Institute of Pathology from 1999 until last year, said the military's medical examiner system, like much of the armed forces, was strained beyond its limits by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The working conditions in these war zones often increased the likelihood of error.
''You're put into a 'MacGyver' situation more often than not and you've got to work with what you've got," said Wagner, now San Diego County's chief medical examiner, referring to the 1980s TV character who solved seemingly impossible situations, often with little more than a Swiss army knife.
Still, the forensic community holds the Armed Forces Medical Examiner in high esteem for work its pathologists do in extreme situations, said Dr. Michael Graham, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners and chief medical examiner for St. Louis.
''Given the conditions they're working under, it's miraculous they get anything done," Graham said.
The medical examiner has 13 staff pathologists, including Ingwersen, and a $7 million annual budget.
Ingwersen, a military pathologist for 10 years, testified at a pretrial hearing in early October that Hatab's case was a ''difficult and challenging mission."
''It was one of the poorest places to conduct an autopsy," testified Air Force Colonel Abubakr Marzouk, a pathologist who observed the procedure.