Fatal crash charge may be reduced for repeated drunk driver after death certificate change
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WSYX/WTTE) -- A rare change in a death certificate may allow a repeat drunk driver to skirt a long prison sentence.
It comes just days before a trial begins, and could bring to light possible problems with several autopsies performed by Ohio's Franklin County Coroner's Office.
Debbie Meadows’ family is outraged.
Meadows died in 2014 after her car was hit by a suspected drunken driver, police said. Police arrested and charged Timothy Castle with her death.
Meadows never regained consciousness and died 11 days later.
Forensic Pathologist Dr. J. Scott Somerset listed blunt force trauma to the head from the accident on her death certificate. The charge against Castle was then raised to felony aggravated vehicular homicide.
Dawn Call, who was Meadows' future daughter-in-law, said the family agonized as the case dragged on for almost two years. The case took a twist last month when an amended death certificate arrived in the mail.
"We received a piece of paper in the mail," said Call. "[There] was no letter with it explaining what was wrong. It just said it was a death certificate and it stated her melanoma as her cause of death. Gashes on your head do not appear from melanoma."
The new death certificate claimed it wasn't the accident that killed Meadows. It was cancer. The family struggles to understand.
"She still had plenty of time left," said Call. "She was out driving. She was enjoying her time with friends. She was enjoying her time with us. We have not gotten any explanation from the coroner whatsoever. It devastates us. We feel completely betrayed."
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien said the sudden change complicates the case against Castle.
"Our hands end up being tied," he said. "We now have different testimony than what we had when the case was indicted by the Grand Jury."
Dr J. Scott Somerset, a certified forensic pathology expert, performed Meadows’ autopsy. He suddenly left the coroner's office last year. The reason is cloudy. Whatever it was, O'Brien said his office was forced to have the Meadow's autopsy reviewed by the coroner's office. The result was shocking.
"They essentially disagreed with the conclusion of the former employee," said O'Brien. "They reissued a new death certificate. It is a very, very rare occurrence."
O'Brien said now a half-dozen other cases with Somerset's name on them are affected.
"Because he's no longer available as a witness, in any case where an autopsy was done, we have to have someone else take a look at it, review it and then testify in his place."
ABC 6/FOX 28 reached out to Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz, who signed off on the second death certificate, to ask her about Somerset and why the death certificate had been changed. She refused to meet with us. We also reached out to former Franklin County Coroner Dr. Jan Gorniak, who signed the first death certificate, who sent us this statement:
It was my opinion on August 7, 2014, and it is still my opinion today, that Ms. Meadows died as a result of complications from the injuries she suffered in the motor vehicle accident that occurred on May 19, 2014 and not from cancer.
Call said the family is holding out hope.
"I would like to believe [if] it's changed so easily from one cause to another then why couldn't it go back?" asked Call. "But I feel like as long as the coroner's not willing to work and see us and speak to us, and give us an explanation, that it probably will not change."
One thing that'll probably change is the charge against Castle, which may go from a felony to misdemeanor.