- Alan Yurko Web Site -
Man convicted of murder is free after judge rules that autopsy was flawed
BY ANTHONY COLAROSSI AND PAMELA J. JOHNSON
Posted on Sat, Aug. 28, 2004
Knight Ridder Newspapers
ORLANDO, Fla. - (KRT) - Alan Yurko, sentenced to life in 1999 for shaking his baby son to death, was a free man Friday after a judge ruled a botched autopsy and other new evidence warranted a new trial.
Soon after Circuit Judge C. Alan Lawson's ruling, Yurko reached a deal with prosecutors: He pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to the time already served - six years and 125 days.
Hours later, he was later released from the Orange County Jail into the arms of his wife and to the cheers of about 25 supporters, who have long maintained his innocence.
A broadly smiling Yurko emerged through the jail's glass doors shortly after 8 p.m. with a large white trash bag filled with legal papers and letters slung over one shoulder.
"God, I just want to go home," Yurko said. "I haven't really believed this is real until now."
He immediately thanked those who fought for his release.
"I can't begin to describe what the last seven years have been like," he said. "Right now, I'm focused on the amazing love around me. I couldn't have done this - I didn't do this. It was all these people and thousands of other people."
In court earlier Friday, Yurko, 34, acknowledged some role in the November 1997 death of 10-week-old Alan Ream-Yurko.
"I do admit to an amount of culpable negligence in my son's death," said Yurko, explaining that he allowed the child to receive a series of vaccinations when he knew he was sick.
Yurko said outside the jail that he pleaded no contest because otherwise he would have had to spend two to three more years in prison awaiting the outcome of a new trial.
"I didn't shake my son. I didn't hurt him. I didn't abuse him," he said. "But I was negligent. He was premature, and I should have done research about vaccinations on the Web. I trusted the doctors. I assumed doctors knew what was good for my kid. This is about parents taking an active role in their children's welfare."
The Yurko case had gained international attention from many who thought the child's injuries were the result of poor health, vaccinations and medical mistakes - not shaken-baby syndrome.
But the thrust of Lawson's ruling dealt with a deeply flawed autopsy conducted by former Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner Shashi Gore.
The death report determined the baby was shaken to death, but it had so many problems that the state Medical Examiner's Commission earlier this year barred Gore from performing anymore autopsies after reviewing the Yurko case.
"I also find that the credible cause and manner of death cannot be gleaned from Mr. Gore's autopsy because of the very serious deficiencies that were found by the medical board and brought to light in this hearing and of course in other places," Lawson said in his ruling.
"Because of that I think it does cast doubt on the entire trial," Lawson continued. "I don't know how you can maintain public trust in a system of justice if you let stand a conviction obtained through reliance on an autopsy that is later so thoroughly discredited."
Knowing what is known now about the autopsy, Lawson said it is possible that jurors could have reached a different verdict following a second trial.
Gore's autopsy included a description of the baby's inner heart muscle, but Gore never examined the heart because it had already been removed for a transplant.
But evidence presented by Yurko's defense team questioning the baby's vaccinations, which were given nearly two weeks before he was hospitalized, was not a factor in the judge's decision.
"I also find that there is no reliable medical evidence that links the death directly to a vaccine," Lawson said.
Yurko's wife, Francine, cried after witnessing the plea and expressed the mixed emotions of having her husband back, but not a complete exoneration.
"By him taking a plea, he gets to come home," Francine Yurko said through tears. "But we're still victims of the system. We've still spent seven years of our lives to prove his innocence and restore the name of our family. And a plea ... regardless of no contest, that's not a victory to me."
"We know he's innocent, and I guess when it comes down to it, I guess that's all that really matters," she said.
Assistant State Attorney Robin Wilkinson said the prosecution still came away from the hearing with a conviction.
"For, I believe a week, we've heard that this child died of a vaccine reaction," Wilkinson said. "In the judge's ruling in court, he found that there was not credible evidence, that it's not been accepted by medical science, which leads to one explanation left ... this child was shaken to death."
After reviewing the evidence, Wilkinson said she and fellow prosecutor Chris Lerner decided not to proceed with another trial and "end it now."
"That is not that we don't believe that Alan Yurko killed his child," she said. "At this point in time we would have to put Dr. Gore back on the witness stand, and there's an issue as to errors that he made ... What this is, is it's a compromise between both sides."
Gore's career has been marred by several controversies since the late 1990s.
Most recently, Gore's ruling of an accidental overdose in the 1998 death of Jennifer Kairis, a student at Rollins College, was challenged by three current or former associate medical examiners who say it was a homicide.
Last fall, John Creamer, who was charged with murder in his wife's death and held without bail for 10 months, was released when Gore told the court he could not support his autopsy findings that the woman had been poisoned with cadmium.
Gore, who retired in late June, could not be reached for comment Friday. Sheri Blanton, a spokeswoman for the Medical Examiner's Office and morgue manager, said Gore was traveling in Europe and not expected back in the country until late autumn.
Friday night, Yurko said he would spend time with his wife and supporters, then celebrate his stepdaughter's 11th birthday at home.
"I've been eating bologna sandwiches five days a week," he said. "I'm looking forward to some really greasy, nasty French fries."
© 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).