To Tell The Truth
- Published: 05 July 2011
In mid-July, I published Accused as a Kindle Single. The piece centers around Tommy Harris, a Houston police officer who was enjoying a decade-and-a-half-long career on the force. All of that changed in the early morning hours of the Fourth of July in 2009 when, through a series of events not instigated by him, he ended up in an altercation in the parking lot of a bar in Stafford, Texas, a suburb of Houston, during which a man, Sylvanus Okhueleigbe, died suddenly.
How he died—and why—would be the focal point of a highly dramatic trial that took place in March of 2011 in Fort Bend County, Texas, where the district attorney is John Healey, an unapologetically controversial public official solidly in the mold of Governor Rick Perry. In the trial, which resulted from a grand jury indictment of Harris for criminally negligent homicide, warring experts argued pointedly over the cause of Okhueleigbe’s death. This was not unusual since most trials find the prosecution and defense disagreeing over the fundamental circumstances of the event that lead to the trial in the first place. What was unusual was this. In a key portion of the trial, the prosecution’s star witness repeatedly committed acts of perjury.
Mary Anzalone, an assistant medical examiner for Harris County, had conducted the autopsy of Okhueleigbe. Five days following the autopsy, well before test results had come back to allow her to render informed opinions, Anzalone had a 38-minute telephone conversation with a police detective assigned to the case. In that call, which she did not know was being tape-recorded, she admitted to being biased against some police officers, suspicious of Harris in particular, and especially angry that he had “lawyered up.” “OK, fine,” she said, “then mine [her final finding] is going to be an asphyxia death, and it’s homicide, and they can explain it later.” Obviously, she had made up her mind weeks before she received all the test results necessary to make an authentic conclusion.
During the trial, defense attorney Aaron Suder asked Anazlone about the conversation. When the tape containing the conversation had been turned over to the defense in discovery, the prosecution had not listened to it, so they did not know the contents. As Suder asked Anzalone a barrage of questions about the conversation, Anzalone answered them enthusiastically but falsely. Once Suder played the tape in open court, Anzalone and the prosecution had to deal with the fact that she had committed numerous acts of perjury. It was bad enough she had failed to wait for adequate information to determine cause of death, but her flagrant willingness not to tell the truth on the stand seemed disturbing. After all, she is a public employee paid by the citizens of Harris County.
On April 7, the Houston Police Officers Union lodged a formal complaint with the Commissions Court of Harris County, the entity that oversees the medical examiner’s office. This prompted an investigation by the Harris County Attorney, Vince Ryan. Robert Soard, an executive assistant county attorney, confirmed to The Houston Chronicle that an investigation of Anzalone was underway. “We are looking into it,” he said at the time, “and interviewing all the appropriate folks.”
Gary Blankenship, the police union president, told the Chronicle reporter Anzalone should be fired. However, Dr. Dwayne Wolf, deputy chief medical examiner, defended her. “There’s nothing wrong with the autopsy report,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with the way she determined the manner and cause of death.” That may or may not be true, but Wolf never addressed what is not open for debate: Anzalone’s alarming decision to commit perjury.
There’s a reason why Wolf could dodge the subject. For some reason, the complaint filed by the police union stops short of accusing Anzalone of committing perjury. “We believe that impeachment evidence that was brought to light during the cross-examination of Dr. Anzalone by Officer Harris’s attorneys seriously underminded her credibility and the basis of her medical opinions.” The complaint did address the phone call about which she falsely testified. “In the phone conversation, Dr. Anzalone made a number of statements and comments evidencing significant biases and prejudices on her part that directly called into question the integrity of her medical opinions. The comments included statements indicating a personal bias against Officer Harris and his actions, certain racial prejudices on her part indicating a bias in favor of the decedent, and premature opinions and conclusions drawn by Dr. Anzalone about the decedent’s cause of death, undoubtedly influenced by her personal feelings and dispositions in the matter.”
Here’s what’s truly disconcerting about this case. If Anzalone committed perjury in the trial of Tommy Harris, how many more times in how many more cases did she not tell the truth on the stand? How many people have found themselves in prison because of her expert testimony? Have any of them ended up on Death Row? The report from the Harris County Attorney into Mary Anzalone will be released in September, but if Anzalone’s behavior on the witness stand is not addressed whatever the report says will remain lacking.