JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi authorities are reviewing the case of a black man who was found hanging dead from a tree after relatives claimed the state's deputy medical examiner can't be trusted because he falsified information about a British woman's death while working in Africa in the 1980s.
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety said it began its investigation Monday after allegations surfaced that Dr. Adel Shaker falsified information in the 1998 death of Julie Ward, a British tourist killed on a visit to Kenya. Shaker was a pathologist in Kenya at the time.
Shaker told The Associated Press on Monday that his boss in Kenya changed his report to make it look like Ward was killed by wild animals instead of being murdered. Shaker said top officials in Kenya were involved in the cover-up and he had not been able to do anything about it because of Kenya's oppressive regime at the time.
Shaker said he set the record straight during a British inquest in 2004.
The questions about Shaker's credibility were raised by Valerie Hicks-Powe, a lawyer for relatives of Fredrick Jermaine Carter, who was found hanging in a tree near Greenwood, Miss., in December.
Local law enforcement insists that Carter had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts and hanged himself. The coroner agreed. Shaker said Carter died by hanging, but he hasn't called it suicide because he said that is the "manner of death," which he said is determined by the coroner.
Carter's family isn't convinced he killed himself and they want Shaker's complete autopsy file on the case, which would include pictures of the autopsy. State officials say the entire file is not public record and the medical examiner's office can't release it without a court order. Hicks-Powe acknowledged she hasn't sought a court order to obtain the file.
During a news conference in Jackson, Hicks-Powe said the case in Kenya raises question about Shaker's work.
"Nothing he has written on paper should escape scrutiny," she said.
Shaker, who is black, said the Carter family's lawyer is "trying to find a scapegoat" for some reason.
"They should not choose me," he said.
State officials said they were conducting an internal investigation into the Carter case, not the allegations in Kenya.
"I was made aware of the allegations against Doctor Shaker Monday morning. I have met with the Chief Medical Examiner and the Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. We will begin an internal review of the Greenwood case immediately," Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commission Albert Santa Cruz said in a statement.
Shaker said his former boss in Kenya changed the language in the report that said Ward had "sharp force" injuries to falsely suggest she had "torn injuries," which made it appear animals killed her instead of a man with a machete.
"Those words made the difference between heaven and hell," Shaker said.
British media quoted Shaker as telling the British inquest in 2004 that he was forced to cover up Ward's murder, in part to protect tourism in the country, though he now says he had nothing to do with it.
"People told me this was the fate of one girl balanced by the fate of an entire nation," Shaker was quoted at the time as saying in The Guardian.
Ward died while visiting the Masai Mara game reserve. A few days after she was reported missing, her remains were found near the scene of a fire on the reserve. Two rangers and a gamekeeper were eventually accused of murdering her but were acquitted following a trial in Kenya.
Dr. Mark LeVaughn, Mississippi's chief medical examiner, said in a statement that the "case in Kenya has nothing to do with" the case involving Carter's death.
"In the Mississippi Medical Examiner's Office deaths are investigated individually on a case-by-case basis, then reviewed daily," LeVaughn said. "This should not be a credibility issue."
Officials in Leflore County insist Carter committed suicide, but in a state associated with violence against blacks during the civil rights era, some people questioned the findings.
During Monday's news conference, the Carter family's attorney, Hicks-Powe, made numerous references to a famous civil rights-era case and said Mississippi government can't be trusted. But she also said she wasn't suggesting that Carter was the victim of a lynching. She said the family just wants all the information available to give to an independent examiner.
"If we find that it is (suicide), so be it," Hicks-Powe said.
Officials have said Carter's clothing was intact, his hands were not tied and that there were no signs of a struggle that would be associated with someone forcibly hanging another person. The sheriff in the case has said he quit taking his medication.
Mike Sparks, director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, said Shaker was already working at the agency when he took over in 2007 and he wasn't aware of the allegations from Kenya. Sparks said Shaker worked for the Alabama agency from August 2005 to November 2010.
Sparks said Shaker was an employee in good standing when he left for the job in Mississippi.
Shaker said he has a stellar international reputation and investigated mass graves in Iraq that led to the execution of Saddam Hussein.
Mark Potok, who tracks white supremacy and other hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center, has said several cases of black men committing suicide by hanging over the past decade have been alleged to be lynchings, but ultimately lacked any evidence for such a charge.