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Testimonial Flip Flops: A report on Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. James K. Ribe

Lewis Owen Amack, Esq.
California Bar No. 177774

“Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few discover what you are; and those few will not dare oppose the voice of the many who have the majesty of the prince on their side.” From Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Los Angeles County Deputy Coroner James K. Ribe has a long, disturbing history of medical misjudgments and reversals of opinion that have subjected innocent people to miscarriages of justice, especially wrongful murder convictions. Because his tendentious testimony overwhelmingly favors the prosecution, however, he has been protected by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which has hidden Ribe’s incompetence and bias from everyone, including defense attorneys and even deputy district attorneys.

Dr. Ribe admits that he reshapes his opinion over time-that is, his medical judgments evolve as he is presented with additional evidence before, during, and after trial. Thus, he has been known to change his opinion after his testimony and caused the conviction of innocent persons (see, e.g., the Wingfield-Helms case, infra), or when a metamorphosis in testimony is necessary to win a prosecution (see, e.g., the Rathbun-Sobek case, infra). Disturbingly, if not shockingly, Ribe apparently regards such intellectual ambivalence as progressive and laudatory. In actuality, Ribe’s belated remolding of medical findings reflects a lack of objectivity and reliability. Post-autopsy changes in medical observations based upon evidence presented by third parties are very likely to be biased by the information presented by those third parties. As the examples below demonstrate, the transmutations in Ribe’s forensic impressions tend to bend toward the will of the prosecution. Note that each of these examples is referenced from newspaper articles instead of legal citations because the D.A. and court system have been completely remiss in dealing with issues such as the Ribe problem, where the goal of the prosecution and its witnesses is simply to convict at any cost, irrespective of justice or the presumption of innocence.

Item 1: Rathbun-Sobek. Charles Rathbun, convicted of murdering model Linda Sobek, was nearly acquitted in his 1996 trial, because Ribe could not explain the cause of Sobek’s death four months after he performed her autopsy. He eventually conceded that Sobek’s asphyxiation was not accidental, thereby assuring a guilty verdict against Rathbun. During cross-examination, Ribe admitted that he revised his opinion based on the courtroom testimony of another prosecution witness. (Greg Krikorian, Sobek’s Death Not an Accident, Deputy Coroner Testifies, LOS ANGELES TIMES, October 24, 1996, at p. 3.)

Item 2: Cauchi. Ribe changed his testimony in another 1996 trial, the prosecution by Deputy District Attorney Daniel Wright of Robert Cauchi of Van Nuys for the alleged torture and murder of his four-year-old stepdaughter. Because Wright knew of other cases where Ribe revamped his opinion during the course of a trial, he filed an internal memorandum to the District Attorney’s Bureau of Special Operations alleging “serious errors” in Ribe’s testimony and reliability. According to the memo, the prosecution was “almost derailed” by Ribe’s “surprise reversal of opinion.” (Greg Krikorian, Records on Deputy Coroner are Sought. Court: Judge’s order could affect murder cases. District attorney’s office repeatedly used official despite questions about his credibility, LOS ANGELES TIMES, November 22, 1997, at p. 1.)

Item 3: Arce/Urbano. During the 1997 trial of Edith Arce and Roy Urbano of Huntington Park for the alleged starving death of their three-year-old son prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Dinko Bozanich, a sweeping order was issued by Norwalk Superior Court Judge Dewey L. Falcone demanding:

  1. transcripts of all testimony by Ribe dating back to 1990,
  2. copies of all coroner’s reports relating to Ribe’s testimony, and
  3. all internal memoranda and complaints about Ribe’s credibility.

Bozanich supported the order, because of his consternation that the district attorney’s office does not share data about the unreliability of expert witnesses like Ribe with its own prosecutors. Bozanich lamented:

“How can I make an intelligent decision on how to prosecute a case when my own office has information that the credibility of a centerpiece witness may be so impaired that it may not only be worthless to put him on but damaging to the prosecution?

Bozanich said that witnesses like Ribe expose him to “the risk of being blindsided” (Greg Krikorian, Courts: Judge gives office three more weeks to find data on deputy coroner whose credibility is questioned, LOS ANGELES TIMES, November 25, 1997, at p. 8.).

Item 4: Wingfield/Helms. Ribe’s most notorious flip-flop may have occurred after the 1995 prosecution of Eve Wingfield and David Helms of North Hollywood for the murder of two-year-old Lance Helms. Initially, Ribe testified that Lance died thirty to sixty minutes after he was beaten when Ms. Wingfield was with the toddler. As a result, Ms. Wingfield, although innocent, made a plea bargain under duress, accepting a ten-year sentence for Lance’s death. When two LAPD detectives who suspected that David Helms was the murderer interviewed Ribe years later, he told them that Lance died instantaneously, while he was under the control of David Helms. Ribe disavowed his earlier testimony as “just ridiculous,” arguing “I had zero time to prepare.” According to the defense attorney, Jack Stone, Ribe “tailor[s] his scientific opinion” to coincide with prosecution theories. Only after the fortuitous revelation of Ribe’s change of mind was Wingfield released from prison, and David Helms finally convicted of murder. (Andrew Blankstein, Lawyer to Seek Release of Woman Imprisoned in Toddler’s Death. Courts: New medical testimony suggests the boy’s father, not she, was present when the 2-year-old was fatally beaten in 1995, LOS ANGELES TIMES, September 11, 1997, at p. 5; Andrew Blankstein, Woman to Be Freed in Toddler’s Slaying. Court: Judge says new evidence indicates she may be innocent. Case sparked change in state law, LOS ANGELES TIMES, September 13, 1997, at p. 1; and Andrew Blankstein, Father Goes on Trial in Son’s Slaying. Court: David Helms is accused of beating 2 1/2-year-old Lance. Coroner’s testimony on time of death could be pivotal, LOS ANGELES TIMES, August 3, 1998, at p. 1.)

Item 5: Jacobo/Vildosola. Ribe’s negligence-if not venality-was responsible for the 1997 wrongful murder convictions of William Jacobo, Jr. and Patricia Inez Vildosola of Monterey Park after the sudden death of their twenty-month-old baby Destiny. Ribe contended Destiny was the victim of “Shaken Baby Syndrome”-a controversial if not fallacious diagnosis based upon damage to and hemorrhaging of the brain. Yet Ribe did not provide crucial “contre-coup” brain matter to Los Angeles County’s chief neuropathologist, Dr. Hideo H. Itabashi; nor did he present the brain tissue at trial. Evidently, Ribe destroyed or concealed the purported “contre-coup” material because it was exculpatory, and he wanted to ensure a successful prosecution. Ribe also withheld evidence that Destiny was suffering from pneumonia and other medical problems, and that she was fatally mistreated in the Emergency Room of Santa Marta Hospital by Joseph Boggs, a doctor with a suspended medical license whose licensesure was never reinstated. The principal cause of Destiny’s death was pneumothorax, the consequence of overaggressive cardiopulmonary resuscitation by Boggs. Although Destiny was dying of acute respiratory distress syndrome caused by the pneumothorax, Boggs transferred Destiny out of Santa Marta to another hospital eighteen (18) miles away in order to hide his malpractice. Mr. Jacobo was exonerated and released after spending five long years in state penitentiaries, but Ms. Vildosola, who is equally innocent, remains incarcerated for life.

Items 1-5 above are presented as concise examples for illustrative purposes only, and should not be regarded as an exhaustive litany, or as a complete accounting of all instances of Dr. Ribe’s forensic and testimonial unreliability.

The Appellate Court expressed its concern about Ribe’s indecisiveness as follows:

“Had this Court been informed of [Coroner Ribe’s] prior changes of opinion, it would have ordered additional disclosure if requested and allowed further defense inquiry on cross examination. Moreover, knowledge of the change of opinion would likely have led any defense counsel to have known to ask for more specific information, as opposed to a general, informal discovery letter on other Ribe cases. Such discovery might have shown such a pattern as has resulted in the so called ‘Ribe box’ of discovery, or additional, other, expert testimony.” Salazar, 110 Cal.App.4th at 1634, 3 Cal.Rptr.3rd at 275.

Likewise, in the trial of Ms. Vildosola, if the prosecution had made information about Ribe’s dubious credibility and forensic irresoluteness available to the court and defense attorneys, there is a strong likelihood that Patricia would have been properly exonerated of all charges.

The extent of Deputy Coroner Ribe’s history of unreliability, vacillation, and bias may never be fully determined. (Jean Guccione, County Reviews Doctor’s Trial Testimony. Reversals of verdicts prompt public defender to look at proceedings involving a deputy coroner known for changing his findings, LOS ANGELES TIMES, August 27, 2003, at p. B.4. See also Jean Guccione, Child-Murder Conviction Tossed. L.A. Coroner’s Credibility Cited, LOS ANGELES TIMES, August 23, 2003, at p. B.1.)

Moreover, the district attorney’s office continues to conceal information about Ribe’s inconsistencies, and its lack of confidence in Ribe’s credibility. (David Watson, Court Rules Withheld Evidence Requires Reversal in Child’s Death, METROPOLITAN NEWS ENTERPRISE (Los Angeles, California), August 6, 2003, at p. 1)

All cases for which Ribe testified may be tainted, and should be reopened immediately by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. (Katherine Gaidos, Ruling Bashes DA for Hiding Witness’s Flaws, LOS ANGELES DAILY JOURNAL, August 25, 2003 Vol. 116, No. 164, at pp. 1ff.

Furthermore, a federal investigation may be needed in order to determine the extent and impact of Ribe’s improprieties. (Jim Crogan, Web of Deceit: Murder conviction overturned because D.A. withheld evidence, LA WEEKLY, August 15-21, 2003)