Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Nina Daniels
Originally posted February 12, 2020, updated April 5, 2020 

Kurt Cobain's Death: A Murder Not Pursued by Authorities, Believes Renowned Forensic Pathologist

Dr. Cyril Wecht would welcome an opportunity to review Nirvana frontman's autopsy report, calls official suicide theory "absurd."

 

Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, left. Dr. Cyril Wecht, right.

Dr. Cyril Wecht's is a nationally recognized expert of unparalleled experience in the field of forensic pathology. His curriculum vitae runs more than thirty pages. Since 1957 Dr. Wecht has performed over 20,000 autopsies, and has been involved in another 40,000 autopsies. Dr. Wecht is the former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science. He served as an elected coroner of Alleghany County in Pennsylvania for twenty years. In 1972 Dr. Wecht was the first civilian ever given permission to examine the Kennedy assassination evidence. It was Dr. Wecht who first discovered that the brain of President Kennedy had gone missing, along with the brain related data in the killing. Dr. Wecht is the author of 50 books and he has made many appearances on network and cable television programs to comment on the deaths of high profile figures. Dr. Wecht has written about or offered commentary on nearly every prominent death investigation in the last 50 years including JFK, RFK, MLK, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, JonBenét Ramsey, Vince Foster and recently Jeffrey Epstein.

In this interview Dr. Wecht talks about different aspects of his expertise and renders his opinion on the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. The musician died in 1994 at the age of twenty-seven. The official ruling of suicide has been publicly questioned since the week after the news broke of Mr. Cobain's death.

You are one of just a handful of forensic pathologists with both a medical and a legal degree. In what way does this rare combination of credentials affect your work?

I think by virtue of having gone to law school I acquired a much better understanding of the legal processes and I have been able to appreciate the complexity and the multifaceted nature of the interface of law and medicine. I am not saying that you have to have a law degree to be a good forensic pathologist. It is not the degree but it is the experience and training in law to understand how lawyers reason, how they think, how they work, to appreciate the multiple civil and criminal legal ramifications of actions, suicides, homicides, which most forensic pathologists do not fully appreciate in the pragmatic sense. So, if I had my way I would include in a mandatory fashion as part of the training of a forensic pathologist some lectures by appropriate experienced attorneys and judges to let them know what it is like dealing with medical malpractice and product liability and so on and so forth.

You often comment or consult on high-profile deaths. Are there any special challenges that celebrity cases present, and if so, what are they?

Yes, there are special challenges because the very nature of these high-profile cases means that they are going to be quite controversial. There is going to be a lot of news media attention, a lot of inquiries and comments, commentaries and so on. So they become much, much more involved, much more time-consuming, much more likely to be susceptible to people challenging and raising issues and questions. There is no question that when I think of all these high-profile cases I have dealt with, the mere fact that they remain cases of great interest corroborates what I am saying. Decades later audiences still want to hear about JFK, RFK, MLK, Elvis Presley, JonBenét Ramsey and so on. These cases, they go on forever.

You have said that you were not familiar with the band Nirvana when Kurt Cobain died. How did Mr. Cobain's case come to your professional attention?

I was contacted by the people who were putting together a documentary about his death. They asked me if I would consult with them, and I said yes. They sent me materials to review and then I was interviewed and made part of the documentary Soaked in Bleach.

What evidence, documents or other information were you able to review in relation to Mr. Cobain's case?

I reviewed everything that the filmmakers had been able to acquire: some information about the autopsy report, the police investigative reports, the photographs, the interviews with other people, background information of Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, and so on.

Why do you believe that Mr. Cobain's death was a homicide staged as a suicide?

I have never seen a case of someone with such an exceptionally high level of heroin, enough to kill a lot of people, who was able to do what the authorities say Kurt Cobain did. It does not make any sense at all from a physiological, neurological or psychological standpoint. Number one, that he would inject himself with such a huge amount of heroin and then take all of the assembly used to inject the drug and clean them and carefully put them back into the special little case: the needle, the syringe, and then set it aside, and then in this state of bliss and contentment, which is why these drug addicts take these drugs – to then pick up the shotgun and shoot himself. It is just absurd. Most of these people die with the needle still in them, the tourniquet on their arm, or the needle and syringe lying close by. Or they recover after a state of unconsciousness. Or they are resuscitated if someone is called to the scene. But for someone to make this injection and then take apart everything and put it back into a case carefully and take a shotgun and shoot themselves it is just – I have never seen anything like that.

Are you aware of any recorded cases of deceased persons with the blood morphine level comparable to Mr. Cobain's?

I have seen some cases with a very high level. But this certainly was in a very high range. Of course, addicts develop what is called tolerance and they can handle a much larger dose than people who are not long-term addicts, so it is not the quantity alone. It is the circumstances that go along with that kind of quantity. As I already said, what was there at the scene, and then the commission of suicide itself need to be considered. If you take the drug, the drug at that level probably is going to lead you into a state of semi-consciousness very quickly. And what is the purpose of taking the drug if you are going to kill yourself? The reason people take these drugs is to make themselves feel much more placid much more contented, to eliminate troubled feelings, their sense of depression, anxiety or whatever it may be. So it just does not fit.

You have also expressed some doubts about the position of the shotgun on Mr. Cobain's body.

Yes. The position of the shotgun did not fit either with someone having shot himself with a shotgun. That was very important too. When you go to a scene and you have someone who has been found shot you have to be very careful. This leads me to another big point which is that the scene was not at all properly investigated. They made a quick assumption of a very premature nature that it was a suicide. You do not do that. You treat every case as if it were a homicide and most of the time it will prove to be a suicide or maybe an accident. The percentage of homicides will be low, but you make sure that you treat it as one. You collect everything that you can: footprints, fingerprints, trace evidence, physical evidence, hair, and so on. And then if it all proves to be unnecessary, the only thing is that you have spent some time, some energy. But this was not done, and the scene was not properly investigated.

In your practice how often have you come across staged suicides?

Not frequently, but I have dealt with several over the years. In fact, I will be testifying in one in the next couple of weeks in Philadelphia. So, while they are not frequent, they do occur. It is just not something that you would never see. I have dealt with a couple dozen over the years in which I rendered reports and testified.

Could you walk us through the proper procedure of determining the cause and manner of death, the role of the police department and the medical examiner in the process, as well as the sequence and timeline for the process?

The procedures are very straightforward. Homicide detectives are called to the scene, not just plain regular cops. Number two: forensic scientists are called. Criminalists come to the scene before anything is touched or moved. The forensic pathologist if available should go, but certainly a forensic scientist, to look for physical evidence and collect it before anybody else contaminates the scene. Then photographs are taken with everything in place before anything is moved. After all that is done, and it may take hours, the body is taken to the medical examiner's office, photographs are taken there, and then the body is examined. Things may be collected for further studying externally like hair and fingernails and so on. And testing is done to see if there is any evidence of the individual having fired a weapon, by testing the hands and fingers and so on. After all that is done, the autopsy is done in great detail, with emphasis, of course, on the shotgun wound itself in terms of the angle, the trajectory and determining the distance that the muzzle would be away from the body.

Who determines the cause versus the manner of death?

The medical examiner determines both the cause and the manner of death.

And on average how long is that process before they are able to determine those?

That will vary. In about 75%-80% of cases the cause and manner of death are determined right away. In other cases you are waiting to get the drug reports. Sometimes you are waiting for other things like the medical hospital records, maybe police reports, maybe the police want to talk to people. So that can take days, weeks or months. When major figures, celebrities are involved then it usually takes months. It is not the medical examiner who requires that much time but then the district attorney becomes involved, the police become involved, and other agencies. They do not want the medical examiner to release the report until they put everything together. So that could be many months.

You walked us through the proper procedure and now how was this procedure not followed in Mr. Cobain's case?

The scene was not properly investigated by homicide detectives and by criminalists. There was no detailed study and examination of the physical surroundings. The body was just moved and taken to the medical examiner's office so those things were not done.

I understand that in Mr. Cobain's case the medical examiner officially determined the cause and manner of death one day after the body was discovered, weeks before the toxicology results were available. Wouldn't that be considered some form of malpractice?

Well, certainly quite improper, incorrect and technically speaking it is malpractice. You are not going to sue the forensic pathologist for malpractice as they have governmental immunity. But yes, speaking in a broad sense, analogizing to things that other doctors do or fail to do properly in their specialty fields, my answer would be yes, it is malpractice to do that.

Do you think there are currently grounds for changing Mr. Cobain's manner of death to undetermined?

Yes, and the people that made Soaked in Bleach tried very hard, and others have too. You know those grounds, the basis for those implorations remain. They have not been changed. I am not aware of anybody making an effort right now. I know that the filmmakers made a very strong, genuine effort.

The former Chief of Seattle Police Norm Stamper said in 2015 that if he were the Chief today he would reopen Mr. Cobain's case...

Yes, I remember that statement.

...but it has been five years and nothing happened. What can be done to have this case reinvestigated now?

The legal next of kin would have to become very active in pushing for this.

There isn't any process available to have this case reinvestigated by another agency?

No, it would have to come from law enforcement. There is no statute of limitations on homicide, so from a legal standpoint you could revisit, but it would have to emanate from the district attorney or a law enforcement agency.

Autopsy reports are not a matter of public record in Washington State, where Mr. Cobain died. Only the next of kin can request their copies. If you had access to Mr. Cobain's autopsy report either because it was forwarded to you by his family or you found yourself in its possession in some other manner, would you be willing to examine it and render a professional opinion?

Absolutely, I would welcome that opportunity if it were to occur in some way. If you get a chance to see the autopsy report it provides you with a stronger basis.

When we first contacted you with a request for this interview you referred to Mr. Cobain's case as "important," can you tell us why?

It is important because I think that a murder was committed here and it has not been pursued. That is why it is important – when anybody has been murdered. The fact that Kurt Cobain was a famous individual just means a lot more public attention.

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Editor's Note:

We have reached out to the King County Medical Examiner for comment. We will post an update if we receive a response.

April 5, 2020 update:

We reached out to the King County Medical Examiner's Office with a request for comment. We also asked specifically what the process would be on the part of King County to arrange for a second opinion regarding Mr. Cobain's autopsy report, either from Dr. Wecht or a panel of reputable forensic pathologists.

The King County Examiner's Office responded with the following statement on February 24, 2020:

"Thank you for your message regarding the interview you conducted with Dr. Cyril Wecht. Your original request on February 12th did not make it to Dr. Harruff, and the other people you mention sending it to are not in the King County Medical Examiner's Office. I'm responding to your latest message on behalf of the King County Medical Examiner's Office, which is part of our public health department.

As Dr. Wecht pointed out in the article, in order for him to review the autopsy report, Mr. Cobain's next of kin would need to request the report from the King County Medical Examiner's Office, and forward it to him. This would be the same situation for any other pathologist or group of pathologists.

At the time of this case, the King County Medical Examiner's Office worked with local law enforcement, conducted a full autopsy, and followed all of its procedures in coming to the determination of the manner of death as suicide. As the autopsy records are private under state law, we cannot provide details about what informed our conclusion.

I can tell you that two pathologists went to the scene and reviewed the case, including Dr. Hartshorne and Dr. Donald Reay, then the chief medical examiner for King County. At the time of this case, Dr. Reay had been with the King County Medical Examiner's Officer for 19 years with extensive experience prior to that.

The King County Medical Examiner's Office is always open to revisiting its conclusions if new evidence comes to light, but we have seen nothing to date that would warrant re-opening the case and our previous determination of death.

Thanks,

James Apa

Communications Director

Public Health – Seattle & King County"

After receiving the statement from Communications Director James Apa we requested copies of the King County Medical Examiner’s Office death investigation procedures from 1994, copies of any accreditation applications KCMEO submitted for 1994, and copies of any accreditation KCMEO possessed in 1994.

King County Public Records Officer Julie Kipp responded on March 11, 2020:

“I confirmed with the Medical Examiner’s Office that the documents you requested have been destroyed in accordance with retention schedules and therefore there are no responsive records.”

In light of the lack of responsive records we asked on what King County based their statement that the Medical Examiner’s Office “followed all of its procedures.”

Mr. Apa responded on March 19, 2020:

Dr. Nikolas Hartshorne signed Kurt Cobain's death certificate calling his death a suicide one day after the body was discovered. This was despite the fact that the full toxicology results would not be available for weeks. Hartshorne was employed by the King County Medical Examiner's Office on a fellowship. He had not yet taken the accreditation examination necessary to become a certified examiner. Hartshorne died in 2002 in a BASE jumping accident.

“Based on knowledge of staff who were in the King County Medical Examiner’s Office at the time of Kurt Cobain’s death, we know that the office’s procedures at that time were followed.”

In the course of further correspondence regarding the current accreditation requirements for the King County Examiner’s Office, Public Records Officer Julie Kipp wrote on March 18, 2020:

“We received only provisional accreditation this year related to the timeliness of receiving toxicology reports from the state lab. Cases are supposed to be cleared in no more than 90 days, but toxicology takes longer, due to a backlog at the state lab. We currently have equipment in house which we can use for preliminary results, but the office did not have that in 1994.”

Between February 19, 2020 and February 27, 2020 we reached out to Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sean Whitcomb and Seattle mayor's spokesperson Kamaria Hightower. We requested a brief phone interview with the Chief of Seattle Police Carmen Best, or a comment from SPD regarding our interview with Dr. Cyril Wecht. All of our four emails remain unanswered.

 

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