Pelfini Charges Dropped-Stunning Video of Pathologist Fabrications

Private Investigator Chris Reynolds spent two years working to establish the innocence of Dr. Louis Pelfini, a prominent physician in Petaluma, CA. Mr. Reynolds work involved travel to several states in order to establish the pathologist, Dr. Thomas Gill, was incompetent and misdiagnosed the cause of death. Mr. Reynolds went to Los Angeles, CA and reviewed every autopsy performed by Dr. Gill for that county and concluded he fabricated testimony on his expertise.  Mr. Reynolds also proved Dr. Gill was terminated from employment for incompetence stemming from his substandard work.  The prosecutors, worried Dr. Gill could not withstand cross-examination, hired a speech pathologist to “coach” Dr. Gill. The sessions were video taped and withheld from the defense until they were discovered during trial, while Dr. Gill was on the witness stand. The tapes established Dr. Gill fabricated his testimony ,including moving injuries on his diagram to support the prosecutor. The prosecutor, Brooke Halsey was suspended by the California State Bar for his misconduct.  Dr. Gill was terminated from his employment within Sonoma County.  Dr. Pelfini’s career was tarnished forever.  It was later determined the most likely cause of death was an acute asthma attack while smoking. Mr. Reynolds was later featured on PBS-Frontline for his work on this matter.

PELFINI CHARGES DISMISSED PROSECUTORS DROP CASE AFTER VIDEOS CAST DOUBTS OVER PATHOLOGIST’S CREDIBILITY

pelfini andrianAttorney Chris Andrian and Dr. Pelfini after charges were dropped.

Published on December 19, 2001, © 2001- The Press Democrat, BYLINE:    CLARK MASON

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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Murder charges against Petaluma physician Louis Pelfini were dismissed Tuesday after prosecutors said videotaped rehearsals undermined the credibility of a key witness.

One year to the day after the 65-year-old doctor was indicted, prosecutors said tapes of pathologist Thomas Gill “tailoring” his testimony left them no choice but to drop the case.

Pelfini and his two daughters hugged and cried as Judge Elliot Daum dismissed the charges, which cannot be reinstated.

“My faith in the judicial system has been restored,” Pelfini said afterward.

Moments after the charges were dismissed, Pelfini’s daughter took out a cellphone and began passing the word: “It’s over. It’s over … Call Aunt Corrine. Finally, a Christmas.”

The sudden dismissal left authorities scrambling to determine whether the damage was limited to the Pelfini case, which turned on Gill’s finding that Janet Pelfini was smothered to death.

Police and prosecutors said they would review other cases in which Gill is a witness.

Sheriff Jim Piccinini said Gill, a partner in a private forensic medical practice that handles autopsies in several Northern California counties, won’t work on any more Sonoma County cases.

Pelfini’s trial, which began Dec. 3, quickly homed in on Gill’s troubled past and shortcomings in the Pelfini autopsy, including the lack of photos to document his findings.

Prosecutors said they had witnesses to buttress Gill’s findings, but the case collapsed after the disclosure that he participated in rehearsal sessions with a speech pathologist.

Despite the outcome, District Attorney Mike Mullins said he remains convinced that Janet Pelfini was smothered. “But I can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

Defense attorney Chris Andrian said he will ask Daum to find his client “factually innocent” — a ruling that Pelfini had no criminal involvement in his wife’s death.

“This is not a case where a guilty guy got off,” Andrian said. “There is no competent evidence to show this woman suffocated.”

The trial was expected to be a battle of experts, leaving jurors to weigh the opinions of forensic pathologists with conflicting conclusions about the Nov. 7, 1999, death of Janet Pelfini.

But after jurors went home last weekend, Daum ordered prosecutors to give Pelfini’s attorneys about 25 hours of video- and audiotapes of Gill’s practice sessions.

The tapes showed Gill working with Santa Rosa speech pathologist Jeff Harris. Prosecutor Brooke Halsey Jr. was present for some of the sessions, as was Sheriff’s Sgt. Roy Gourley.

At one point, Halsey said, Gill is asked when he decided Janet Pelfini’s death was a homicide.

Halsey said Gill replied “about a month” after the Nov. 9 autopsy, to which Harris said, “That sounds like too long. How about December 5?”

“Twenty-some-odd hours of tape are fraught with examples like that,” Halsey said, adding that Gill’s credibility was “shot.”

There was disagreement over who was responsible for the rehearsal sessions, with Halsey saying he directed Harris to avoid details of the Pelfini case.

Harris, who has a contract with the Sheriff’s Department to assist witnesses, said he regretted the outcome but that “I did what I was hired to do.”

“I was never told by the District Attorney’s Office or the sheriff’s office I could not discuss specific facts of the Pelfini case,” he said.

Mullins defended his deputy. “I want to make it very clear that Deputy District Attorney Brooke Halsey has upheld the highest standards of the duty of prosecutor in both the manner in which he handled the case and the manner in which he handled the recent revelations,” he said.

The Pelfini case could have political ramifications for Mullins, who is running for re-election in March.

Deputy District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua, who is challenging Mullins, attended portions of the trial, although he said his interest was Gill, who is scheduled to testify in one of Passalacqua’s cases.

Andrian said Mullins “should be removed from office” if he still believes Pelfini is guilty based on Gill’s “manufactured testimony.”

His comments followed similarly acid statements in court describing the practice sessions as the most outrageous, unprofessional and prejudicial conduct he’d ever seen.

But Tuesday, Andrian said he has not decided whether to file a complaint with the state Bar Association. He said he does intend to report Gill to the state Medical Board, which licenses physicians.

“Doctor Gill should never be a witness in a courtroom,” Andrian said. “He shouldn’t be a licensed physician and he should be investigated for perjury.”

Mullins said he was still reviewing the tapes.

Pelfini’s indictment stunned his friends and patients, as well as fellow parishioners in the Hessel church where he and his wife taught Sunday school.

It was the first time since 1993 that Sonoma County prosecutors used a special grand jury to obtain a murder indictment and take a case directly to trial rather than filing charges and allowing a judge to decide whether there was sufficient evidence for a trial.

The last case also was dismissed in a dispute over a witness’ testimony.

Pelfini’s indictment came more than a year after he called 911 to report that his wife of 30 years had apparently committed suicide by sticking her head into a bucket of water.

Sheriff’s deputies testified at the trial that his inconsistent statements made them suspicious but they opted not to handle the case as a possible homicide, meaning there was no effort to collect evidence at the Pelfinis’ home.

Investigators decided to investigate it as a homicide a month later, after Pelfini disclosed that his wife had struck him during an argument on the ride home from a San Francisco dinner on the night of her death.

Gill was a linchpin in the case because of his finding that she was suffocated.

Defense attorneys planned an attack on Gill’s competence and qualifications after learning that he was fired from a job in Indianapolis in 1994 and had his medical license briefly suspended. But they didn’t learn about the rehearsal sessions until Thursday, nearly two weeks after the trial began.

In dismissing the case, Daum, who has experience as an actor, said the tapes he viewed of Gill rehearsing his testimony reminded him of “My Fair Lady,” in which a poor Cockney woman is tutored to speak and act like a member of the upper class.

He said it took a similar “Herculean effort” to coach Gill, and that he imagined a production titled “My Fair Pathologist.”

Andrian said even though charges were dropped, Pelfini paid a high price. “It’s a travesty,” Andrian said. “The man had an impeccable reputation that was dragged through the mud.”

Staff Writer Lori A. Carter contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 568-5312 or cmason@pressdemocrat.com.