Two Florida medical examiners may have mishandled the autopsy of a Florida mom whose 2010 death was declared a suicide but whose family believes was murdered, newly released findings of an oversight commission allege.
Since her death on Sept. 2, 2010. authorities have maintained that Michelle O’Connell, 24, fatally shot herself with the service weapon belonging to her police officer boyfriend. But her family alleges she was killed by her boyfriend, St. John’s County sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks, to escape Banks’ alleged abuse. (Authorities have dismissed allegations against Banks, citing lack of probable cause. Through his attorney, Banks has denied involvement in Michelle’s death and abusing her.)
Now, the findings of a probable cause panel ordered by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission may help bolster the O’Connell family’s claim. The panel found that St. Johns County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Predrag Bulic and Medical Examiner Dr. Frederick Hobin may have violated multiple policies.
Most significantly, the panel alleged that the doctors’ initial autopsy reports failed to document Michelle had a broken lower jaw bone, which Michelle’s family has maintained is evidence that she was abused and killed.
The broken jaw was discovered in a 2016 post-exhumation autopsy, which was requested by the O’Connell family and performed by Orlando pathologist Dr. William Anderson.
“This is a big breakthrough for us,” Patty O’Connell, Michelle’s mother, tells PEOPLE.
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The panel, in a four-page memorandum submitted to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission in February, said Hobin violated state statutes “by alleged failure to document the broken mandible that was obvious in the X-ray taken during the autopsy.”
Michelle’s family considers the finding a bit of vindication and hopes that it ultimately proves a turning point in the ongoing dispute over her manner of death determination.
Forensic pathologist Michael Baden, formerly of the New York State police and noted for his work investigating high-profile deaths and hosting HBO’s Autopsy, agrees that Hobin’s initial autopsy report was lacking.
“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, who independently reviewed reports and photographs from the autopsy and death scene, told PEOPLE exclusively in December.
While noting that suicide remains a possibility, Baden said, “I wouldn’t rule out homicide, but I can’t say for certain just on the basis of the autopsy.”
While Hobin initially determined Michelle’s manner of death a suicide, he at one point switched his determination to homicide and completed an amended autopsy report and death certificate – neither of which was ever officially filed with the state. He later backtracked, officially maintaining the suicide determination.
Alleged Procedural Violations
The panel also found probable cause that Dr. Hobin violated state statutes and guidelines “because he maintained part of his investigative findings, amended autopsy findings, and amended death certificate at his home” and by “failure to have complete notes and the investigative report in the files maintained within the medical examiner’s office.”
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Bulic was also cited for alleged violations, including “his apparent unawareness that the file for Michelle O’Connell’s death investigation housed in the medical examiner’s office was incomplete,” and “allowing a staff member to provide autopsy photographs to a person who was not the legal next of kin, and did not have the permission of the legal next of kin to view the autopsy photographs.”
The panel recommended that Hobin be suspended and that Bulic be issued a written reprimand. Both have 21 days to respond and may opt for a formal hearing before the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, says Jessica Cary, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
PEOPLE’s calls to the St. Johns County Medical Examiner’s Office seeking comment from Bulic or Hobin were referred to County Attorney Patrick McCormack, who tells PEOPLE that the panel’s report “is not a final determination of anything.”
MacCormack added, “It is anticipated, although not certain, that one or more actual administrative complaints will be made pertaining to this matter. At that time, the county will review those complaints and respond. Until that time, we can’t speak to this matter.”
Patty O’Connell tells PEOPLE she’s “overjoyed that finally, someone’s starting to do something.”
She adds, “You can’t just give up. You’ve got to keep knocking on doors. I just really have an upbeat attitude on justice for Michelle and I’m not letting anything stop me from continuing to fight.”