An assistant medical examiner in San Francisco was precluded from testifying in a gay murder hearing this week after questions about his reliability arose.
Whatever issues there are with Dr. Christopher Happy haven’t been disclosed publicly, and it seems unclear whether the problems will impact other cases he’s been involved in reviewing.
Happy had been expected to testify in San Francisco Superior Court Thursday, March 14 about the death of Terry Rex Spray, 60, whose autopsy he performed. Prosecutors have charged Spray’s longtime partner, Timothy Stewart, 48, with bashing in Spray’s skull August 3. Spray died September 18.
During Stewart’s preliminary hearing Thursday, Deputy Public Defender Danielle Harris referred to Assistant District Attorney John Rowland saying Wednesday, March 13 that he wouldn’t ask the court to rely on Happy. She said the medical examiner’s office had advised Rowland that there’s new Brady material involving Happy. That information might be helpful to Stewart’s defense. Brady refers to Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case.
“I became aware of the issue yesterday” and “immediately” notified Harris and the court, Rowland said during the hearing before Superior Court Judge Kay Tsenin on Thursday. Harris is trying to get the new information.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Amy Hart testified in Happy’s place about the cause of Spray’s death, which she said was “most likely” complications of blunt head trauma, and the manner of death, which she determined to be homicide.
During a break in the hearing, Harris said it “remains to be seen” how the issue with Happy might affect the case, but it was “somewhat shocking” that Hart would testify on the cause and manner of death without relying on the autopsy that Happy conducted.
Harris repeatedly questioned how much attention Hart had paid to materials that Happy produced and how much she’d spoken with Happy about the case. When she asked Hart about which materials had been “essential” in her review, Hart pointed to the autopsy photos Happy had taken, as well as information from other sources – a draft report by two of her investigators and hospital records.
Hart said she and Happy had discussed the autopsy photos and “cases in general.”
She also said that although the autopsy’s been performed, the investigation into Spray’s death hasn’t been closed, because her office is waiting for toxicology results.
Toxicology tests hadn’t originally been deemed necessary, but Hart said there was a question regarding “a potential toxin injection.” She said she didn’t know specifically who’d requested the toxicology tests, which could impact the cause of death finding.
Approached outside the hearing, Hart said she couldn’t discuss the situation involving Happy. Happy, who was still working for the medical examiner’s office as of Thursday, didn’t respond to an interview request.
Tsenin said at the beginning of Thursday’s session that her understanding was that the DA’s staff had received an email saying that if they had a cases involving Happy, they should talk to Chief Assistant District Attorney Sharon Woo.
Outside the courtroom, Rowland referred questions to Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office. Bastian declined to comment.
Harris said in court that Happy has worked at six medical examiners’ offices in 10 years. He “abruptly” left his post in Milwaukee, “citing personal reasons,” although there had been “turmoil in that office during his tenure,” she said.
She said previous Brady material that had already been released was related to incidents from 2009 through 2012. At least some of the issues were related to the San Francisco and Los Angeles police departments, she indicated. Harris said there’s a protective order covering the incidents and details couldn’t be shared in an open hearing.
Outside court, Harris said, “I don’t know what the latest problem is” involving Happy, and she wasn’t permitted to discuss other issues regarding the doctor. Officer Albie Esparza, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, wasn’t able to provide information based on the limited details the B.A.R. shared with him.
An April 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article says Happy resigned as the county’s medical examiner after about 20 months in the position. That year, Happy had said “conflicts with his staff were making it increasingly difficult to remain in Milwaukee,” the story says.
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel around the time of his resignation, Happy said, “I’m pretty proud of the way that I left (the medical examiner’s office). I think I even left it a little bit better than when I came.” His departure had “nothing to do with the office” and was “for personal reasons,” he told the paper.
Karen Domagalski, operations manager for the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office, told the Bay Area Reporter that she could only confirm that Happy had worked for the agency.
Happy has worked for the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office for at least a year, but according to Harris, he hasn’t officially been sworn in. In November, he testified in the preliminary hearing for Roland Pouncy, 44, who’s facing trial in the murder and robbery of Richard Sprague, 47, a gay man who was killed in February 2012.
Happy did testify in the first preliminary hearing in the case involving Stewart. In December, at the end of that hearing, Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan held Stewart to answer on the murder charge.
The trial had been expected to start in February, but prosecutors got a delay in the case as they sought more evidence, and the second preliminary hearing was set. At the conclusion of the latest hearing Thursday, Tsenin found there was sufficient evidence for Stewart to stand trial. The next court date is March 28.