Freed murder defendant says he was jailed 19 months because of botched autopsy
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Ronnie Winfield was accused of strangling his 76-year-old neighbor Leannia Hall during a romantic encounter inside her Humboldt Park home late one March night in 2014.
Winfield, then 65, unwaveringly maintained his innocence. And, after 19 months being held at the Cook County Jail, he was found “not guilty” of murder in 2015 by a jury that heard evidence that Hall actually died of natural causes.
As the verdict was read, Winfield was so relieved that he stood, sobbing, as sheriff’s deputies formed a shield between him and a courtroom gallery filled with Hall’s incredulous family members.
Three years after his acquittal, Winfield lives off Social Security and a small pension. He has moved from the neighborhood where he lived at the time of Hall’s death to avoid any confrontation with her family but has found it difficult to move on.
Winfield says he’s angry about what he went through.
Not so much at the Chicago police detectives who interrogated him for four days, making him recount his story again and again, suggesting that maybe he strangled Hall for ridiculing him for failing to get an erection and telling him he failed a lie-detector test but never actually showing him the results to prove that.
Nor even with the Cook County prosecutors who had him locked up on $5 million bail and tried to put him in prison for what likely would have been the rest of his life, as murder carries a 20-year minimum sentence.
No, Winfield lays the blame for his arrest and prosecution squarely on one person: Dr. Adrienne Segovia, the $222,945-a-year assistant Cook County medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Hall. Segovia concluded she had been strangled and ruled her death a homicide, leading to the murder charges against Winfield, who was with Hall when she died.
According to hundreds of pages of transcripts from Winfield’s trial, reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times as part of a continuing investigation of the medical examiner’s office, Segovia dismissed signs Hall wasn’t killed — among them that she had no marks on her neck and no defensive wounds.
Segovia didn’t conduct tests to determine whether Hall, who was 4 feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 215 pounds, died from heart failure related to an abnormally enlarged heart — the cause of death suggested by Dr. Shaku Teas, a pathologist working on Winfield’s behalf who formerly worked for the medical examiner’s office.
“It’s the job of the medical examiner to get it right,” says Daniel Alexander, who was Winfield’s attorney. “People’s lives are at stake . . . And she got it wrong. Dr. Segovia just did a very poor job.”
Alexander questions the credentials of Segovia, a pathologist who has performed thousands of autopsies since being hired by the Cook County medical examiner’s office in 1994. Segovia isn’t board-certified in her specialty, having repeatedly failed tests to gain such certification from the American Board of Pathology. Certifications from that and other medical boards denote expertise in a given field of medicine.
Under questioning from Winfield’s lawyer during his trial, Segovia acknowledged she failed the exams to become certified in anatomic pathology and clinical pathology three times.
Segovia said in court that she hadn’t taken any tests to gain certification as a forensic pathologist — a certification the Cook County medical examiner requires for any pathologist hired since 2012. Of 18 pathologists on staff, Segovia is one of two who aren’t required to be board-certified under the county’s union agreement with its pathologists.
Despite that contract’s emphasis on certification, Becky Schlikerman, spokeswoman for Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the chief medical examiner, downplays its importance.
“Board certification does not reflect a doctor’s knowledge or experience in forensic pathology,” Schlikerman says. “Dr. Segovia is an expert forensic pathologist with more than 24 years of experience. She has examined more than 11,300 cases — with more than 1,250 of those being ruled homicides.
“Dr. Segovia is the educational coordinator for pathology residents and medical students coming through the medical examiner’s office,” according to Schlikerman. “She has authored multiple abstracts and publications in the field of forensic pathology.
“She has testified as an expert witness in forensic pathology in multiple jurisdictions in hundreds of cases over the course of her career,” the medical examiner’s spokeswoman says. “She has been qualified as an expert witness in forensic pathology in each of those cases and has never failed to be qualified as an expert.”
Despite Winfield’s acquittal, the medical examiner’s office hasn’t changed its findings, saying Hall was, in fact, strangled. The Chicago police have closed the case, also continuing to classify her death as a homicide.
Previously, the Sun-Times has reported that:
• The FBI questioned another assistant medical examiner’s findings in the high-profile case of a Chicago cop found to have committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in 2015 at his home on the Northwest Side. Federal agents, who hired an outside pathologist to review the investigation of Sgt. Donald Markham’s death, believe he was murdered.
• The medical examiner routinely fails to send investigators to the scene of suspicious deaths even though the law required that until Toni Preckwinkle, who as president of the Cook County Board oversees Arunkumar’s agency, pushed through a measure earlier this year to change that.
• Some of the agency’s investigators — non-physicians who conduct preliminary investigations for the pathologists — have faced legal problems, including one, a former cop, who was hired while facing criminal charges for shooting his fiancée. Others have faced disciplinary action for not meeting the agency’s minimum standard of going to the scene of even one death per month.
• A former chief deputy medical examiner, Dr. John E. Cavanaugh, was fired last November after an internal review turned up errors that included ruling the cause of death in one case was “undetermined” and that there was “no clear evidence of trauma” even though the unidentified man had suffered multiple wounds. The cause of death in that case was changed to homicide.
All of the 218 cases that Cavanaugh handled are now under internal review. Pathologists in the medical examiner’s office are combing through his files to see whether there were any previously undetected errors.
Medical examiner’s records show that Segovia is among the pathologists involved in that review including handling the case of the man with multiple wounds. So far, she has determined that Cavanaugh botched four cases, including the one involving the unidentified man found inside a burning South Side apartment in October.
In that case, Cavanaugh ruled the cause and manner of death were undetermined, Segovia’s review found “sharp force” and “blunt force” injuries on the body, and she found the man died from “multiple injuries due to an assault.”
Cavanaugh, a board-certified forensic pathologist, questions why his work is being reviewed in part by someone without board certification.
“In terms of medical peer review, it is considered an ethical requirement that a quality review be performed only by a physician who is board-certified in the same specialty or subspecialty (or a panel which includes at least one such),” Cavanaugh, asked about Segovia’s role, says by email.
Schlikerman responds: “We don’t believe Dr. Cavanaugh or his assessment to be credible. This is not considered to be a peer review — this is an investigation of his work product.”
Segovia, 56, didn’t respond to questions.
Winfield’s trial came down to a battle between pathologists, with Teas — a board-certified forensic pathologist who was an assistant Cook County medical examiner from 1977 to 1991 — testifying that, based on her review of the case file, Segovia reached the wrong conclusion in finding that Hall was strangled.
Teas testified that Segovia failed to perform a test to measure damage to Hall’s enlarged heart — and later refused a request from Teas to do so. Segovia said in court, “I didn’t need it to determine cause of death,” according to a trial transcript.
Segovia found that Hall was strangled because there were “pinpoint hemorrhages,” known as “petechial hemorrhages,” in her left eye and some in her right eye. Those are often found in cases of strangulation. She also found there were some hemorrhages in her neck muscles.
But Segovia also acknowledged on the witness stand that there were no exterior signs of trauma on Hall’s body and that the hyoid bone in her throat had not been broken, which frequently occurs when someone is strangled.
“So it’s the neck-muscle hemorrhage in conjunction with the finding of these petechiae that make the diagnosis of strangulation,” Segovia testified.
Teas — who was appointed by Cook County Judge Joseph Claps to review Segovia’s autopsy findings and other records on behalf of Winfield, at the county’s expense — testified that the hemorrhages in Hall’s eyes and throat also could have been the result of cardiac arrest, or heavy coughing that Winfield repeatedly told police she was experiencing, or the position of the body when she died, or even the removal of her body to the morgue.
“She had no evidence in her autopsy to draw the conclusion that this was a strangulation,” Teas testified. “She didn’t do histology. She did an incomplete autopsy.
“For me to say that somebody was being strangled, I have to see some physical signs that would be consistent,” Teas said in court. “The natural instinct of anybody who is being strangled is to protect themselves. We have this instinct. It’s fight or flight. You either run, or you fight. And when you don’t see that, you need to be cautious about the interpretation of your findings.”
Teas testified that Hall might have had an adrenaline rush while she was attempting to have sex with Winfield and that that could have caused her to go into cardiac arrest.
“My conclusion is that Leannia Hall died a natural death as a result of hypertensive cardiovascular disease,” Teas said, according to the transcript.
Winfield, who lived across the street from Hall, says she invited him in and initiated sex, but he wasn’t able to perform. He says that, at some point, she began to cough heavily, laid down on the bed and began snoring, eventually stopping.
Teas said in court that she looked “at the circumstances according to Ronald Winfield’s statement that she called him and actually wanted to have sex and realized that he cannot get an erection.
“My entire statement is based on the autopsy findings, the enlarged heart, the medical history and that I don’t find anything inconsistent with Mr. Winfield’s statement.”
Winfield says he tried to get out of the home but that Hall — the matriarch of large family and someone who was well respected in the neighborhood — had locked them in, so he began searching for the key. One of Hall’s sons came to the door, he says, and when the door finally was opened, Winfield took off.
He came back to talk to the police, who interrogated him for days.
“The doctors at the morgue are pretty good at what they do, they went through a lot of school and are supposedly a lot smarter than the rest of us,” one investigator told Winfield, according to a transcript of the interview. “Well, how do you explain that she has marks on her neck or bruising from her neck muscles that she got [from being] strangled? How do you explain that, Ron?”