KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Knoxville's district attorney was found dead in his pasture in 1992, his breastbone and some of his ribs broken, a hoofprint on the chest of his overalls. Investigators concluded he had been knocked down and trampled to death by his cattle.
Fifteen years later, they appear to have a new theory: It was no barnyard accident at all.
They have all but suggested Ed Dossett was drugged and then perhaps placed underfoot so that it looked like an accident. They also appear to have a suspect: the DA's widow, who is awaiting trial on charges of murdering her second husband.
Dossett, 44, was said to be feeding his herd when he was trampled. But prosecutors now say the DA — who at the time was dying of cancer and apparently had an implanted morphine pump for the pain — had a lethal level of the drug in his system and was so doped up he probably couldn't even walk.
"You could write a book about it or a TV movie," said Robert Jolley, a former prosecutor in the DA's office. He said he recalled having confidence in the original investigation in 1992, and added: "It's hard for me to understand what they are looking for."
On Friday, a judge heard arguments on a request by prosecutors to dig up Dossett's body and re-examine the remains — a move his widow, Raynella Dossett-Leath, is fighting, saying it "amounts to an abuse of the corpse and is an insult to the dignity of the family." The judge will rule next month.
Dossett-Leath, a 59-year-old registered nurse, goes on trial in February in the 2003 slaying of her second husband, David Leath, a retired barber. He was shot to death in the couple's bed. An autopsy found painkillers and antidepressants in his system that had not been prescribed.
In asking to exhume Dossett's body, prosecutors said in court papers that there was "evidence of drug overdose in both victims," both deaths occurred "under highly suspicious circumstances," and in both cases there was a similar motive, described only as "greed."
Prosecutors have not said exactly how Dossett's death might have unfolded. Richard Fisher, a member of a special out-of-town legal team called in to prosecute the case because of Dossett's ties to the DA's office, would not comment beyond what is in the court papers.
The widow's lawyer, James A.H. Bell, would not comment on Dossett's death. But Dossett-Leach told authorities that her husband was so weak that she had to help him to the pasture, where he wanted to see and feed his cattle. She said that when she returned later, she found him lying in the gateway of the fence.
No X-rays were taken of Dossett's head and neck at the time, and his morphine pump was not detected in the initial autopsy.
But the toxicology report "showed a level of morphine that is so extraordinarily high it is unlikely that any human could function in an ambulatory manner or continue to live," a deputy medical examiner said in recent court papers.
The autopsy said Dossett's chest was crushed. But authorities say there was no indication in the report of "any death-causing trauma to the body."
In the meantime, Dossett-Leath and Leath's daughter from a previous marriage are battling over Leath's estate. In court papers, the widow and the daughter have accused each other of murdering Leath.