By MELINDA WILLIAMS
“I feel like I’m chasing my tail,” a Pulaski County judge said Friday during an approximately three-hour motions hearing in the case of a man accused of murdering his wife in 2005.
At issue was whether the Commonwealth has lost autopsy evidence that could prove Leslie “Les” Michael Dickerson didn’t kill Mindy Nicole Dickerson.
Defense attorneys contend brain stem tissue taken from Mindy Dickerson’s body during the autopsy was lost, leaving their client with no way to prove that she died from encephalitis.
However, Dr. Amy Tharp, an assistant chief medical examiner in Roanoke, testified she has slides containing what is alleged to be the deceased’s brain stem tissue. She said she couldn’t attest to the tissue being Mindy Dickerson’s because she wasn’t working for the medical examiner’s office when they were taken in 2006 and she didn’t have them DNA tested.
Tharp said she didn’t have all of the approximately 120 slides tested for Dickerson’s DNA because it costs thousands of dollars to test each one.
When she took tissue samples from a brain stem in a jar of organ samples on file as being from Mindy Dickerson’s body, Tharp said, DNA testing ruled out the possibility of the brain stem being Dickerson’s.
Furthermore, she testified, three sets of slides that were sent to Carilion in 2005 show no signs of inflammation caused by encephalitis.
Defense attorneys Cliff Harrison and Jimmy Turk contend the samples were contaminated by DNA from other bodies because protocol does not require knives and other autopsy equipment be cleaned thoroughly between autopsies.
Tharp said a block of brain tissue that came from the jar that was supposed to contain Dickerson’s samples was “drilled into” for a DNA sample and the result “said it wasn’t Mindy Dickerson’s brain.”
Regardless of the encephalitis ruling in 2006, Tharp said she found evidence of suffocation during the second autopsy, so it is immaterial whether she had encephalitis.
“If you have terminal cancer and I shoot you in the head, you didn’t die from terminal cancer,” she told Harrison.
Judge Marcus Long Jr. said the issue before the court is one of money, not the destruction of evidence. He pointed to Tharp’s testimony that the slides that hold tissue samples of Dickerson’s brain stem still exist.
Judge Long agreed there are “some crazy things going on” with the autopsy samples, but that is a matter for the jury to consider when weighing the evidence. He denied the defense motion to dismiss the charges based on destruction of exculpatory evidence because “it’s not lost.”
The judge added, “I’m sure if you want to have (the slides) tested, you can.”
Tharp said they can be tested if the defense subpoenas them for testing.
Judge Long took under advisement a prosecution motion to allow the Commonwealth to present a crime staging expert at trial.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith said the expert will help the jury to understand “staging” is used in crime scenes in an effort to throw off the investigation.
Harrison objected to the expert testimony, saying, “It’s a mystery to us how you can stage encephalitis.”
Long responded, “You claim it’s a natural death, they (prosecution) don’t.” Nonetheless, Judge Long said he wants to read some case law before making a ruling on the prosecution’s motion.
Dickerson, 35, is to be tried by jury Sept. 22 through Oct. 3. He remains in custody in New River Valley Regional Jail, being held in lieu of $500,000 bond.
Dickerson is charged with first-degree murder.
Mindy Dickerson was found dead on her bed in the Dickerson’s 426 First St. home in Pulaski in January 2005. She had scratches on her face, neck, mouth, nose and knees; and “red stains of an unknown origin in her hair,” according to a search warrant issued at that time.
Les Dickerson was indicted by a special grand jury in 2013 and brought to Pulaski from the Texas home he shared with a wife and three children. He moved to Texas in 2005, following Mindy Dickerson’s death.