In February 1999, Orlando resident Alan Yurko, then 29, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for shaking his 10-week-old son to death. An autopsy revealed that the baby, also named Alan, had blood in his retina and a subdural hematoma (blood-filled swelling in the brain). Taken together, the findings were offered as proof by the prosecution that baby Alan died from violent shaking. A jury convicted Yurko of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in less than four hours.
Orange-Osceola chief medical examiner Dr. Shashi Gore performed the autopsy that served as the centerpiece of the conviction. It seemed like an open-and-shut case.
But in March 2001, Yurko filed a petition for a new trial. Among other things, he contends that Gore's autopsy report was riddled with mistakes, and that Gore didn't have enough background on the case to determine exactly what killed the baby.
What's surprising about the appeal is that Gore admitted the errors and omissions in court.
At the original trial, Yurko's lawyer, Junior Barrett, questioned Gore on the procedure for diagnosing Shaken Baby Syndrome.
"Isn't it a fact that on the Shaken Baby Syndrome theory, in order to make a determination you have to get `the child's` history from the caretaker?" asked Barrett.
"Yes," Gore answered.
"Caretaker in this case would have been Mr. Yurko, isn't that correct?"
"Did you get any history from Mr. Yurko?"
Gore also testified that he didn't speak with the baby's mother, Francine Ream, and that he wasn't even sure anyone from his office got the baby's medical records.
"Let's not deal with probability," Barrett asked. "Did an investigator from your office get the medical records of this child's birth from the hospital where the child was born?"
"Yeah, I don't know," answered Gore. "I'm not a hundred percent certain."
In his autopsy report, Gore listed baby Alan as a black infant when in fact both of his parents are white. "Yeah, that's a typographical probably," said Gore in testimony. (The report has apparently been corrected to reflect the correct race.) He also got the circumference of the child's head wrong. According to medical records, baby Yurko's head was 31.5 centimeters a week after birth. A two-month checkup put the baby's head at 32.5 centimeters. But in his autopsy Gore listed the baby's head circumference at 22 centimeters.
The most puzzling discrepancy in Gore's report has to do with the baby's internal organs.
Shortly after baby Alan died, Ream donated his organs. Gore writes about the empty chest cavity in his final autopsy report: "It is noted that the heart, liver with gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, mesenteric lymph nodes and parts of the small intestine are surgically absent as a result of harvesting."
In court, however, he testified that he "removed the anterior part of the entire chest bone and then we removed the heart, lungs and all the organs ... ."
Contacted for this story, Gore agreed that the difference in head measurements between the autopsy report and his testimony is "quite a large discrepancy." As to who removed the child's organs, he stands by the autopsy report. "It is very clearly written here that the organs had been removed," he says.
Gore made headlines in November after an investigation revealed he was doing private work on county time, a practice he openly condemned. County administrators considered firing him, until they realized only the state can discipline medical examiners.
Had Gore checked the baby's medical records, he would have found that Ream's pregnancy was complicated with gestational diabetes and recurring infections. Baby Alan was born premature and underweight, suffering from respiratory problems and severe jaundice. When vaccinated at 8 weeks old, he developed a fever that lasted longer than a week.
An expert witness for the defense, Dr. Douglas Shanklin of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, testified that his examination of the child's medical history and autopsy report led him to conclude that baby Alan died of a long-standing brain infection. "I don't think there is injury involved in the final event," Shanklin said. "I think it is a totally natural process."
Alan Yurko is in prison at the Century Correctional Institution north of Pensacola waiting to hear whether or not he will be granted a new trial. This is his second appeal.
Meanwhile, Ream is spearheading a campaign to free her husband. She has a website, www.freeyurko.bizland.com, and a firm belief that her baby died of complications from the vaccinations. She's convinced Alan Yurko is innocent.