Forensic experts speak to PEOPLE exclusively about the evidence in Florida mom Michelle O'Connell's mysterious death
Police say a St. Augustine, Florida, woman killed herself with her boyfriend’s gun six years ago — but her relatives say they have proof she was murdered. Subscribe to PEOPLE now or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday, for more on this case.
In the years since Michelle O’Connell’s death from a gunshot wound that severed her spinal cord, her family and friends have battled with investigators over what they claim is a failure to prove the truth: that O’Connell was murdered.
A St. Johns County, Florida, sheriff’s investigation, as well as investigations by three state attorneys, have all concluded that O’Connell killed herself in September 2010. Authorities have further dismissed allegations that O’Connell’s boyfriend at the time — Jeremy Banks, a St. Johns sheriff’s deputy — was involved, citing a lack of probable cause. O’Connell’s family has said she was preparing to leave Banks the day she died.
Through his attorney, Banks has also denied involvement.
But O’Connell’s family believes they have proof of what they claim. Earlier this year, they asked a private forensic pathologist in Orlando, Dr. William Anderson, to perform a post-exhumation autopsy of O’Connell’s body. He says he discovered she had a broken lower jawbone never mentioned in the original medical examiner’s reports.
“They mentioned relatively significantly less serious injuries above the eye, but did not mention the broken mandible,” Anderson tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
He says other potential evidence revealed in his autopsy include signs of hemorrhaging on the outer surface of the mandible, the retracted position of O’Connell’s tongue and blood flow patterns pictured in death scene photos.
Shortly after Anderson’s results were released, the St. Johns County medical examiner issued a statement dismissing claims of new evidence in Anderson’s findings.
“Based on what has been reported, they do not appear to contain any new evidence not documented in the first three examinations, including the fractured mandible,” Dr. Predrag Bulic said — though he had yet to see a copy of the report.
But a thorough review of the original autopsy report reveals only that the “third cervical vertebra is shattered” and makes no specific mention of the broken jawbone.
“Except as associated with the gunshot wound, there are no fractures or notable deformities,” the report reads. A handwritten note on his report does read, “No clear-cut threat of suicide.”
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Though O’Connell’s manner of death was initially ruled a suicide, the medical examiner’s office changed it to homicide — before a prosecutor’s investigation closed the case as a suicide.
“There was an area of the bone that had stark coloration that is consistent with a hemorrhage. But the reason we don’t see that in [the original] autopsy is that they didn’t open that area to see if there was a hemorrhage,” Anderson tells PEOPLE. “If they had recognized the fracture, they should have further looked to see if there was hemorrhaging. Nobody took sections of that area at all.
“My exam suggests strongly that the individual was hit twice in the face, once breaking the jaw, fell to the floor, the gun was inserted into her mouth while she was on the floor and fired,” Anderson says. “This explains the position of the body, the flow of the blood, the retraction of the tongue. I’ve never seen a suicide like this where there’s evidence of potentially incapacitating trauma that occurred prior to the gunshot wound. So, in my estimation, this is a homicide.”
‘It Could Be Homicide or Suicide’
PEOPLE asked forensic pathologist Michael Baden — formerly with the New York State police, noted for his work investigating high-profile deaths and hosting HBO’s Autopsy, who is unconnected to the case — to review the competing conclusions, drawn from the autopsy reports, autopsy photos and death scene photos.
His opinion was mixed.
“I think Dr. Anderson was correct in pointing out that there was a fracture there that was missing in the text of the first autopsy,” Baden tells PEOPLE exclusively. “But I can’t say that’s enough to indicate that [O’Connell] was struck first and then the gun discharged.”
Asked about Anderson’s conclusion that, if she had killed herself, O’Connell’s tongue would have been under the muzzle and laying straight rather than pushed back into a U-shape, Baden says, “I’ve seen it both ways.”
“It’s hard to get into the mind of somebody in that situation,” he says. “Certainly, if somebody’s going to put the gun in the mouth, they can be very distraught and upset and push the tongue back. They often don’t know exactly what they’re doing at the time. The mind is clouded at the time.
“Theoretically, it could be homicide or suicide,” he says. “I wouldn’t rule out homicide, but I can’t say for certain just on the basis of the autopsy. In doing an autopsy, the history and circumstances and all kinds of other things would come into play.”
That’s where forensic psychiatrist Dr. Harold Bursztajn, a senior clinical faculty member at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at the school’s Beth Israel Medical Center Psychiatry, says the medical examiner’s office made another mistake.
“I am amazed that there was no forensic psychiatrist conducting a forensic psychiatric autopsy,” Bursztajn, who is unconnected to the case, tells PEOPLE. “It’s a difficult process trying to disentangle all the questions between suicide, accident and homicide and there are a good number of people who work in the specialized area of forensic psychiatry.”
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Any Errors ‘Didn’t Change the Outcome’
“When there is a reasonable doubt as to what the cause or manner of death is, you bring in a psychiatrist in connection with the forensic pathologist,” Bursztajn says. “It’s a completely different specialty and that’s why a forensic pathologist will ask a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to join them.”
And while Dr. Carole Lieberman, another noted forensic psychiatrist and frequent expert witness in legal cases, tells PEOPLE she has questions about Banks’ behavior in the initial 911 call in O’Connell’s death — made by Banks, who discovered her body — investigators dismiss that as wild speculation.
“If I put people in jail based on their demeanor at crime scenes, I’d be wrong almost half the time,” Howard Cole, the sheriff’s commander of central investigations, tells PEOPLE. “People act differently confronted with the same situation. To me, [the 911 call] sounded like someone genuinely distraught.”
“We have made the statements to the errors that we’ve made,” says sheriff’s spokesman Chuck Mulligan.
He notes that scrutiny of the case has prompted improvements at the sheriff’s office, including boosting the number of investigators from four to 12, doubling the size of the forensics unit and developing in-house DNA screening capabilities.
“Although there were missteps, they didn’t change the outcome of the decision,” he says.