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Philip Workman Case

Part 2: Questions about the bullet

During opening arguments, prosecutor Eddie Peterson told jurors, "You will hold in your hands the bullet that killed Lt. Oliver."

That bullet - a .45 caliber hollow-point -- came from Workman's gun, according to an FBI expert.

Under cross examination, however, that FBI expert admitted there was no trace of blood, human tissue or any other evidence the bullet presented by the government had been fired through Lt. Oliver's body.

Still, the prosecution persisted in its argument that a .45 caliber hollow-point bullet, like Workman was shooting that night, killed the Memphis police officer.

Workman's court-appointed public defenders never questioned that central allegation.

But two well-known pathologists hired by the current defense team are now challenging that theory: Famed Pittsburgh Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht and Georgia's chief medical examiner Dr. Kris Sperry.

Hollow-point bullets are designed to mushroom upon impact to inflict maximum damage inside the body.

But the autopsy of Lt. Oliver's body shows the wound where the bullet exited his body is smaller than the entrance wound.

(The entrance wound was a circular hole .5 inches in diameter. The exit wound is described as a "slit-like tear" in the skin, .64 inches long and .21 inches at its widest point.)

In an analysis prepared for defense lawyers and obtained by NewsChannel 5, Dr. Wecht writes: "In my experience, I have found that hollow-point bullets fired out of low-velocity guns ... generally do not exit the body.... On the rare occasion when the bullet exits, it creates a wound larger than that of the entrance wound due to the deformity of the bullet."

Wecht concludes: "Therefore, based on the path that the bullet took, the fact that the bullet exited the body, and the fact that Mr. Workman was using a .45 caliber pistol loaded with aluminum jacketed, hollow-point bullets, I do not believe that it was Mr. Workman's gun that fired the shot that fatally wounded Officer Oliver."

Dr. Sperry, who works for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, also notes that "every wound I viewed indicated that the .45 silver tip hollow point bullet expanded upon entering the human body involved. In approximately 90% of the wounds I viewed, the .45 silver tip hollow point bullet did not exit the human body it entered." He concludes that Lt. Oliver's wounds "are inconsistent with every wound I have seen created by a .45 silver tip hollow-point bullet."

Fragmenting bullet theory

But Don Strother, a former Shelby County prosecutor who helped put Workman on Death Row, argues there's a simple explanation.

"The bullet may have struck something, and only a fragment of the bullet exited the body," Strother tells NewsChannel 5.

Yet, Strother's fellow prosecutor, Eddie Peterson, told jurors in opening arguments that "the bullet that entered Officer Oliver and eventually killed Officer Oliver exited Officer Oliver as well."

And the pathologist who performed the autopsy, Dr. James Bell, testified the bullet "passed through the left lung, through the diaphragm again, through the heart, through the right lung, exited the right chest in the back."

No bullet or bullet fragments were recovered from Oliver's body.

Workman's lawyers have tried to raise these issues on previous appeals. In 1998, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged the argument. "If a .45 caliber hollow-point bullet had gone all the way through Lt. Oliver's chest and emerged in one piece, we have no doubt that the exit wound would have been larger than the entry wound," the court wrote.

The judges also began speculating the bullet must have fragmented inside Oliver's body, thus explaining the smaller exit wound.

"Dr. Bell did not recover any bullet segment, to be sure," the court added, "but no x-ray was taken and the small piece of metal could simply have been overlooked."

In fact, the government did have an x-ray taken of Oliver's body that it had failed to turn over to Workman's lawyers. And, despite the government's claims, it shows no apparent signs of a bullet or bullet fragment.

Even though the defense subpoenaed the x-ray as recently as 1994, the medical examiner did not produce it until that office casually disclosed its existence in a statement pushing for Workman's execution.

State attorneys say the x-ray doesn't prove anything about Workman's guilt or innocence. But the defense says it raises doubts about the basis under which the courts have denied their client a full hearing on his claims.

"For six and a half years, the Medical Examiner's Office suppressed the Oliver x-ray establishing that Workman is innocent of capital murder," says Workman lawyer Chris Minton.

Update: clemency theory

At Workman's clemency hearing in January 2001, current Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith argued his own tests prove "hollow points can, and will, fail" to mushroom. That, he said, would explain why the exit wound might be smaller than the entrance wound.

Smith also told the state parole board that he discovered traces of aluminum in tissue from Lt. Oliver's wound that had been preserved in the medical examiner's office. The type of bullet that Workman carried contained aluminum, unlike the ammunition carried by the police.

"What I'm hearing you say is that you're testifying without a doubt in your mind that the .45 caliber weapon took Lieutenant Oliver's life?" asked one board member.

Smith replied, "There's no doubt in my military mind." He added he was "100 percent certain."

But a sworn affidavit from the technician who performed the tests indicates aluminum was not detected on the first two attempts. It showed up only on a third effort. Smith never told the board that it took three attempts to reach that result.

A defense expert says that result could have been a false positive from the aluminum in the microscope itself.

"The only thing that anyone can saw with 100% certainty ... is that Dr. Smith's claims were wholly misleading, if not simply false," Minton says.

(Story created: 10/2/99)

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