South Sound News

Independent review unveils concerns on some of Pierce County medical examiner's conclusions

TACOMA, Wash. — Three families and two forensic pathologists have come forward telling KIRO 7 they believe Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark has issued incorrect findings in the deaths of their loved ones.

Now an independent medical examiner has reviewed several of Clark's death investigations saying he has concerns about some of Clark’s conclusions.

“There are some standards issues, particularly where investigative thoroughness and the performance of autopsy are concerned,” said Dr. Thomas Andrew with White Mountain Forensic Consulting Services based in Concord, New Hampshire.

Andrew examined more than 60 cases at the request of an attorney representing the families.

In at least one case, the 2017 death of Stephen Gale, family members and police believe Clark's conclusion let a killer walk free.

“Travesty,” said Gale’s brother Tom in an interview with KIRO 7 on Wednesday. “It’s a travesty.”

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Gale died after a fight on July 4 2017. At the time, Steilacoom police said Tyler Thiel admitted fighting with Gale at an Independence Day party and told investigators, “when Gale was on the ground he hit him several more times and kicked him in the 'head, chest, face area.' Thiel, then 23, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

But prosecutors later asked a judge to dismiss the charges based on Clark changing his mind about why Gale died. At first Clark,  “stated the temporal component of the assault makes it contributing factor to the death,” according to a probable cause affidavit filed with Pierce County Superior Court. Then less than two months later in their motion to dismiss prosecutors stated, “Dr. Clark has completed his forensic analysis and has classified the cause of death as 'undetermined'. Clark said Gale died because of heart disease.

“Well, it’s a matter of the so called, but for test,” said Andrew. But for the assault, Andrew said Gale very likely would not have died that night, stating in his report the assault, “contributed to the death of a person with natural disease typically survivable in a non-hostile environment”.

“The situation wherein a person is assaulted and sustains less than lethal injuries who goes on to die because those less than lethal injuries had exacerbated their medical condition is still consider, from a medical point of view, and that’s an important distinction, medical point of view, a homicide,” Andrew said, adding it was up to a jury to determine if the death was murder, manslaughter, or an accident.

Andrew closely examined four cases and what he called thumbnail sketches of another 57 deaths. In his report he wrote, “if accurate there appears to be a pattern of suboptimal investigation and autopsy in infant and child cases reported under suspicious circumstances,” and, “in several instances there was no autopsy performed or worse, medical examiner jurisdiction declined.”

Andrew told KIRO 7 he believes many of Clark's decisions should be reviewed by an independent panel of forensic doctors and specialists.

“There seems to be enough, based on the limited information I have, to warrant an outside review of what’s going on,” said Andrew.

Clark faces a whistleblower complaint filed by Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Megan Quinn as well as three complaints filed with the Washington State Medical Commission.

He has not commented on the allegations. Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier has also repeatedly declined comment while the complaints are under investigation.