Idaho Board Investigates Botched Autopsy Complaints

March 13, 2012

The Idaho Board of Medicine is investigating complaints that an eastern Idaho doctor who is also an Idaho State University faculty member botched 10 autopsies, including one involving a highly publicized murder.

The complaint contends that in one case, Steve M. Skoumal, of Pocatello, determined a Rexburg family died of carbon monoxide inhalation. However, after the bodies were exhumed and sent to Boise, another examiner found bullets or bullet fragments in the victims’ heads.

“I personally looked at the X-ray film and had some big questions, and so we got second opinions,” Madison County Sheriff Roy Klingler told the Idaho Statesman. “It sure made a mess at the time. We had a lot of family members – it’s not fun to have your family members exhumed. As far as the final outcome, I don’t know if (Skoumal’s errors) would really change anything or not.”

The deaths remain unsolved.

Skoumal also testified as the state’s expert witness in the 2006 stabbing death of 16-year-old Cassie Jo Stoddart, who was stabbed 29 times while house-sitting for relatives. Two men are serving life sentences for the killing.

The complaint against Skoumal in that case said that even though the knives used in the killing had unique characteristics, Skoumal couldn’t identify the size or length of the knives that made the wounds or interpret wound patterns. One of the men involved in the murder unsuccessfully appealed his sentence, contending that the “state failed to prove which of the wounds were fatal, as the state’s expert witness, Dr. Skoumal, only offered testimony that 12 of the wounds were ‘potentially fatal,”‘ said the Idaho Supreme Court in its January 2012 opinion.

Skoumal denies any wrongdoing. His attorney, Richard A. Hearn, said Skoumal is caught between law enforcement officers unhappy with Skoumal’s reports and the medical board that’s operating without all the information.

“Some people are unhappy with what he did,” said Hearn. “The people who are complaining about Dr. Skoumal are primarily police and legal people that didn’t get the answers they sought.”

The board could ultimately revoke Skoumal’s license.

“But there are a couple problems with the case (so far),” Hearn said. “We are dealing with the practice of medicine. And it’s not clear that performing an autopsy is practicing medicine.”

Nancy Kerr, executive director of the Board of Medicine, declined to comment on Skoumal but said physicians facing accusations are usually offered a chance to meet informally to discuss a complaint.

In another case, Skoumal did an autopsy on the exhumed body of a 90-year-old woman who had been a hospice patient. The woman’s granddaughter was charged with first-degree murder after Skoumal reported the woman died of a drug overdose. The complaint against Skoumal said that he took embalming fluid instead of blood for a sample and misinterpreted the toxicology results. Skoumal disagrees. Charges against the granddaughter were eventually dropped.

The complaint against Skoumal also includes the case of a woman found dead in 2010 near a crashed vehicle, with her husband dead in the back seat. The board said Skoumal determined she died of “blunt impact injuries consistent with a motor vehicle accident.” The board noted Skoumal didn’t document all the cuts and marks on her body, though a history of domestic violence existed. Skoumal stands by his finding of “blunt force trauma.”

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