Werner Spitz, forensic pathologist who investigated the deaths of JFK, Martin Luther King and Mary Jo Kopechne – obituary

Dr Werner Spitz: he claimed to have been involved in more than 60,000 autopsies
Dr Werner Spitz: he claimed to have been involved in more than 60,000 autopsies - CBS Photo Archive

Werner Spitz, who has died aged 97, was a pioneering US forensic pathologist who was consulted by Congressional committees investigating the assassinations of President John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and testified as an expert witness in high-profile murder cases including those involving OJ Simpson and Phil Spector.

Spitz began his career in Israel where in 1951 he observed his first autopsy – that of Morris Meyerson, husband of the future Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who had been found dead aged 57 in a Tel Aviv flat. As it turned out he had died of a heart attack.

Young Spitz was hooked, but was disappointed with the cases that came his way. “In seven years in Israel, there was only one murder,” he complained. The US offered more exciting prospects and in 1959 he decided to emigrate.

He went on to serve as Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, and Chief Medical Examiner for Wayne and Macomb counties in Michigan (with Detroit falling in both counties), claiming to have been involved in more than 60,000 autopsies.

To a wider public, it was as an expert witness in murder cases that Spitz became familiar
To a wider public, it was as an expert witness in murder cases that Spitz became familiar - CBS Photo Archive

Forensic pathology when he arrived was in its infancy and Spitz was among those who led its development, teaching at Wayne State University, Detroit, and at the University of Windsor in Canada, and co-editing Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation, the “Bible” of the profession, first published in 1972 and now, updated and revised, in its fifth edition.

Spitz began his foray into high-profile cases in 1969 testifying for the parents of Mary Jo Kopechne, the political worker who had been found dead in an Oldsmobile sedan that had overturned into a pond on Chappaquiddick Island. The local medical examiner called it accidental drowning and a week later Senator Edward Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury, receiving a two-month suspended sentence.

Questions about the exact circumstances of her death, however, led Massachusetts officials to press for Mary Jo’s body to be exhumed for a full autopsy, but Spitz helped persuade a Pennsylvania judge to agree to her parents’ wish that her burial site should not be disturbed.

Senator Edward Kennedy in 1969 during the Chappaquiddick case
Senator Edward Kennedy in 1969 during the Chappaquiddick case - Boston Herald Archive

In 1975 Spitz reviewed the assassination of John F Kennedy, concluding that while the autopsy, carried out by military pathologists, had been “botched”, its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the killer was the right one. In 1979 he reviewed the killing of Dr Martin Luther King, confirming the findings of the original autopsy that James Earl Ray was the man responsible.

To a wider public, it was as an expert witness in murder cases that Spitz became familiar, “booming his certainties” about the cause of death, as the Los Angeles Times once put it, “with the same kind of stentorian, accented baritone that Edward Teller used to proclaim his convictions about nuclear conflict”.

When the occasion demanded Spitz was not above a bit of showmanship. During the 1988 trial of Robert Chambers, “the Preppy Killer”, on charges of murdering 18-year-old Jennifer Levin, Spitz, for the prosecution, demonstrated his theory of how the victim had died from strangulation after a prolonged struggle, with her blouse being twisted into a noose. Chambers had claimed that her death had occurred by accident during “rough sex”.

Spitz was forced to put on his demonstration twice because each side brought its own blouse and its own volunteer “victim”. The result was inconclusive, as while the prosecution’s volunteer obligingly gagged and turned red, the volunteer for the defence showed no reaction. Chambers later pleaded guilty to manslaughter after the jury failed to reach a verdict.

Spitz’s testimony was more effective during the 1996-97 civil lawsuit against OJ Simpson after Simpson had been acquitted of murder. His testimony that small semi-circular cuts on Simpson’s left hand were fingernail gouges that could have been inflicted by his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, as she clawed to break free of a chokehold, helped the jury to find him responsible for her death and that of her friend Ronald Goldman.

OJ Simpson in 1997
OJ Simpson in 1997 - AP Photo/Nick Ut

Spitz’s claim for the defence, at the 2007 murder trial of the music producer Phil Spector, that his alleged victim, the actress Lana Clarkson, had shot herself out of despair over her career and personal life, no doubt contributed to the jury’s failure to agree a unanimous verdict on that occasion, though Spector was convicted of murder in a 2008 retrial.

It appeared that Spitz may have gone too far in 2016 when he alleged, in a CBS documentary, that the person responsible for the brutal 1996 killing of six-year-old beauty queen Jon Benet Ramsey, found bludgeoned to death in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado, was probably her nine-year-old brother, Burke Ramsey.

In 2008, based on DNA evidence, Burke and his parents had been cleared of her murder by a prosecutor, and in response to Spitz’s claims Burke Ramsey launched a £120 million lawsuit which was eventually settled on undisclosed terms. The crime remains unsolved.

Spitz: not above a bit of showmanship
Spitz: not above a bit of showmanship - Alamy

The son of a medical doctor, Werner Uri Spitz was born on August 22 1926 to a Jewish family in Stargard, Germany (now in Poland). The family moved to British Mandate Palestine before the Second World War.

Werner Spitz embarked on medical studies in Switzerland, but graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His father landed him a job at a local medical examiner’s office and it was there that he became fascinated by forensic pathology.

In one of his last cases, Spitz was hired by the family of Patrick Lyoya, the unarmed 26-year-old refugee from Congo whose fatal shooting in April 2022 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by a white police officer triggered public protests, to carry out a second autopsy.

Spitz confirmed that Lyoya had been killed by a single shot to the back of the head, but found no other injuries consistent with police claims that he had been violently resisting arrest after committing a traffic offence. In June 2022 the officer, Christopher Schurr, was charged with second-degree murder.

Werner Spitz is survived by his wife, Anne, and by two sons and a daughter.

Werner Spitz, born August 22 1926, died April 14 2024