The police were convinced the husband did it.
After all, the couple were estranged, the wife had only lived in her new Chesterfield County apartment for about a month, and to top it all off, the empty box from a nine-piece chicken-and-fish dinner, purchased the night before, sat in her sink. It was proof if the police ever saw it that the woman had had dinner with a person she knew the night before her dead body was found nude, bound with pantyhose, stabbed, strangled and beaten.
Dr. Marcella Fierro wasn't buying it.
After thoroughly investigating the thin woman's body at the morgue that day in 1985, Fierro, the then-deputy chief medical examiner, phoned the police on a hunch and asked them to search the woman's apartment for laxatives. Sure enough, they found a large amount.
Fierro then had a lab assistant go out and buy the same dinner. She put the contents in a blender and compared it against the amount of food that was recovered from the woman's stomach. They matched. The woman had eaten the large dinner alone; she was bulimic. From that, Fierro knew it was likely the police were going in the wrong direction; a stranger probably murdered the woman. It was later discovered that a maintenance man had broken in and killed her.
"She's very intuitive. She just seems to have a sixth sense when something isn't right," says Dr. Leah Bush, a deputy chief medical examiner in the Tidewater office. "It's hard to stump her or fool her."
Virginia's chief state medical examiner since 1993 (and the fourth chief since the position was created in 1946), Fierro oversees 61 people in four offices statewide. She and her staff investigate every murder, suicide and suspicious, unexpected or violent death in the state — usually about 1,200 a year, with a slight percentage more coming through the Richmond office, located in the Biotech Two building in the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park downtown. That's not including the state's 400 local medical examiners, physicians who essentially volunteer at $50 a case to decide if a death should be examined by one of Fierro's morgues.
A mother of two who's been married to a local physician for more than 30 years, Fierro's short — "5 feet, 3/4 of an inch and shrinking," she quips — tough but friendly, down-to-earth and intensely caring about, as she puts it, "my patients."
"We're doctors and they're our patients," says Fierro, 62. "She's not any less worthy of your attention or interest because she's dead than when she was alive. Such patients need their stories told, and no one can tell them but us. They speak to us in a different way — with their injuries."
And though she's regarded in her field as one of the nation's leading forensic pathologists, Fierro's probably best known as the model for best-selling mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell's medical-examiner heroine Kay Scarpetta, a claim that has been trumpeted everywhere from Vanity Fair to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A claim that Fierro herself dismisses with a laugh: "Do I look like Scarpetta? Blonde, blue-eyed and 105 pounds? I don't think so!" Plus, she adds, with a chuckle, "I don't fool around with married men. I have one married man; one is enough." Fierro is married to
Dr. Robert J. Fierro, a local gynecologist; they have two grown children — Francesca O' Reilly, a Parkinson's disease lobbyist, and Robert J. Fierro Jr., an assistant commonwealth's attorney for Chesterfield County. When her children were young, she told them that their father "took care of ladies before their babies were born," and she took care of people after they died.
Cornwell and Fierro met in the mid-1980s when Cornwell, a former crime-beat newspaper reporter, was trying to research her first attempt at a mystery novel. Cornwell ended up seeking a job at the medical examiner's office, setting up a computer database, scribing during autopsies and becoming best friends with Fierro before achieving fame for her books.
Cornwell doesn't know if she would have thought of writing about a female medical examiner if it hadn't been for Fierro. "I was shocked to find that there was a female medical examiner," she says. The first time the two met, they talked for hours. "I asked pedestrian questions," Cornwell says. "When I was a police reporter, I never met the medical examiner, [but Fierro] was so accessible.
"I don't know where my life would have gone if I had not met her," muses Cornwell, who is now writing "Blow Fly," her 12th Scarpetta novel. "If I had met the wrong person, I would have had no interest in death investigation. She looks at it as making the dead speak. To her, it's like reading hieroglyphics. She interprets it like an excavation, and that mesmerized me. Our encounter changed my destiny."
Cornwell says Scarpetta is a mix of her and Fierro. "In terms of intellectual and moral inspiration, Scarpetta comes from [Fierro] and me," Cornwell says. "We are in concert in our values and our opinions on a lot of things."
"It's Patsy's physical description and Patsy's social abilities and skills as far as the way [Scarpetta] dresses and that she tries to be fashionable and drives a Mercedes. Blonde and blue-eyed — that's Patsy," says Bush. "But the guts of the character? That's Dr. Fierro to a ‘T' — somebody who will do anything they have to do to solve a case, somebody who comes in on weekends. ... It's [Fierro's] personality."
A Buffalo, N.Y., native, Fierro has worked in the state medical examiner's office since the early 1970s, except for a brief two-year teaching stint in the early 1990s. And unlike her colleagues in other states, she isn't just a paper pusher; she still works in the morgue, cutting bodies, eschewing the Kevlar gloves the newer doctors wear to avoid slicing their hands because she's used to doing it the old-fashioned way.
Fierro will search for evidence of sexual assault and murder in victims when some doctors might say the woman's fully dressed, there's no foul play and move on. She readily tells stories of driving to remote locations in her beat-up 1975 Oldsmobile station wagon (which was only recently donated to the Kidney Foundation and replaced by a pre-owned 1998 station wagon) to descend into gullies and rappel down cliffs to reach hard-to-get-to homicide scenes in the days before the medical examiner's office employed its own forensic investigators. "I'd do whatever it takes," she says. "I'd still do it today if the case requires it." She recalls coming home one night after a local TV news crew captured her rappelling down a cliff. Her then-6-year-old son said, "Mommy! We saw you on the TV! We could see up your skirt!"
Fierro shares at least one non-work-related habit with her fictional counterpart, though: cigarettes. Carltons are her preferred brand, and colleagues say she can fill a meeting room with smoke in a hurry, though she doesn't smoke in the morgue. "I may be the last living physician smoker on this earth," says Fierro, who's been smoking since college. "I've been trying to convince my husband to send me to some nonsmoking clinic. My 86-year-old mother is all over my case about smoking."
Also similar to Scarpetta, Fierro used to like gourmet cooking. (Cornwell published a cookbook, "Scarpetta's Winter Table," in 1998.) But since her children have grown, she doesn't cook as much. Instead, she focuses more on a lifelong passion: travel. She and her family have been all around the world, from England, France and Italy to Japan, which she has visited twice. "You know that six bucks you spend on lunch every day?" she says. "Bring your sandwich and in a year you'll have enough to go anywhere."
Fierro has been advising Cornwell on the technical points of forensic medicine in her books since the beginning, encouraging the fledgling author after she received rejection slips. Sometimes, she'll suggest what injuries could keep a victim alive for a requested time, or she might even contribute a major plot device, such as the real-life disease that made a villain smell like maple syrup. "By and large, if [Cornwell] says it, you can take it to the bank," Fierro says. "She's very fastidious. She talks to anybody in the lab who has information, and not just this lab. ... It's a lot more fun to work on imaginary cases. You can do more twists and turns."
"Dr. Fierro is one of the reasons I have that reputation" for scientific accuracy, Cornwell says. "I have her and others like her check everything one more time. If she doesn't know the answer, she refers me to somebody else." When she was writing her book about Jack the Ripper, for example, Cornwell called Fierro frequently, asking her about the way the victims' throats were cut and the act of disemboweling. "I would verify it with her," Cornwell says. "I always ask her to read my manuscripts. She will always have her comments and corrections."
Says Dr. Michael Baden, host of the HBO cable series "Autopsy," chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police and a familiar national television commentator and author, "It's like a teacher throwing a rock in the water and the ripples go out much further than the rock. Marcella's influence on Patricia Cornwell has brought a lot of interest and respect to the forensic science field."
But you won't see Fierro commenting about the Laci Peterson trial on Court TV. Fierro routinely turns down such interview requests and obsessively avoids the limelight. Yes, she was quoted in a Vanity Fair profile of Cornwell, and, yes, she briefly appeared in a re-enactment of one of her cases on a recent ABC Primetime Live special about forensic science co-hosted by Cornwell, but except for a 1992 Times-Dispatch article about her courtroom prowess, she's never allowed herself to be profiled in print before now.
"She's one of the real top leaders in forensic pathology in a number of ways," says Baden. "But it's sort of like Grey's ‘Elegy in a Country Courtyard': ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.' Marcella is not unseen; she's certainly well known to the forensic community, but she's not as known in the public as others are who don't contribute as much as Marcella does. ... The stuff on the TV and who gets well known to the public is often unrelated to how competent one is."
Dr. Henry Lee, chief emeritus for the Connecticut State Police laboratory and one of the most famous forensic scientists in the nation for his testimony in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, says of Fierro, "She's a very excellent pathologist and … a good teacher." Lee, who has worked with Fierro on a couple of cases in the 15 to 20 years he's known her, praises Fierro in particular for her work in educating other forensic professionals across the nation.
A past president of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), Fierro would be one of the expected speakers at any major national conference concerning forensic medical examination. She has set national professional standards in her field, trained many medical examiners working across the country and made huge contributions in the area of identifying unknown decedents, Baden says.
"I have had exposure to forensic pathologists all over the world, and I still think she is the most brilliant forensic pathologist I have ever met," Cornwell says. "She has so much integrity. She cares about the victims. She will fight tooth and nail for her patients. You don't joke in [the morgue]. You never show any disrespect, even when you get a drug dealer. She looks at what otherwise was a perfectly healthy individual. To her, it's a waste: ‘They die the way they lived,' she would say."
One time a man's body was brought to the old downtown morgue; he had been fishing with his son in the James River when he fell overboard. His body finally surfaced a few weeks later, bloated and green. Cornwell can still remember the horrible smell that permeated the building.
"As the elevator went down further toward the morgue, the stench got worse," Cornwell recalls. "I looked at Dr. Fierro and said, ‘Sometimes I don't know how you stand this.' ‘I just try to remember who they were,' [Fierro] said." Then Cornwell was able to visualize the man, riding in his boat on a beautiful sunny day with his son. "She always gives people their dignity."
Though at first glance it might seem Fierro strikes a diminutive presence on the witness stand — "Sometimes we have to get her a pillow she can sit on so [the jurors] can see her," says Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Learned Barry of Richmond. "She's teeny" — Fierro is a formidable expert who can make defense attorneys quake. She is often called to testify about her autopsy findings in murder trials, and sometimes in civil trials, such as when the cause of death is questioned or an inheritance hinges upon which person died first in a case of multiple deaths.
"When you don't have good forensic science," Fierro says, "you have attorneys arguing over the likely cause of death. We take that business out."
In September 2002, Frankie Marvin Miller Jr. was arrested for the murder of his 8-month-old daughter, Janea. Miller contended that he had been trying to hit his wife with a board but hadn't known she was holding the baby when he swung it at her. But Fierro shaved the baby's head and found three impressions that she forensically matched to the board. Then after removing the baby's skull, she located three brain hemorrhages that had caused the death, demonstrating that Miller had hit his daughter multiple times. "We would have had a very tough time proving that this individual did not intentionally strike the baby. It probably would have been somewhat in the area of manslaughter," says Detective Robert D. Hewlett, a veteran homicide investigator with the Henrico County Police. "He got life based on her findings."
Back in 1992, when Fierro left the state morgue to teach at East Carolina University for two years, defense attorney David Boone told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "I've locked horns with her many times and I've never cross-examined a tougher witness. She's definitely been the turning point in many cases for the commonwealth that could have gone either way."
While allowing that Fierro is an effective witness, attorney Michael Morchower worries that the medical examiner's office is simply a de facto arm of the police and may be too focused on supporting the prosecution's cases. However, Fierro says, "I don't feel that we're handmaidens of the commonwealth, the commonwealth's attorney or law enforcement." If subpoenaed and asked, she will give the same information to defense attorneys as she does to prosecutors. "What we have to say is the same to everybody," Fierro says. And in fact, many cases, she adds, don't get prosecuted at all because a medical examiner's findings either don't support a criminal prosecution or don't support the arrest of a particular suspect.
Barry, the city prosecutor, says, "I have done 100 murder cases and I have never seen [Fierro] effectively cross-examined. She just eviscerates you; you don't even know what's happening." Her testimony, he adds, "is what sets the standard for all the evidence. I have interviewed a number of jurors who have said, ‘That lady really knew what she was talking about.' ... The bottom line is, the one piece of evidence that you can take to the bank is the autopsy report prepared by Dr. Fierro's office."
Barry recollects one murder trial in which the defense was arguing that the victim had committed suicide and shot herself. "[Fierro] was totally cool. She took the gun right out of the defense counsel's hand and said, ‘It's impossible for this lady to have killed herself' " because of the position the forensic evidence proved the gun was in when it was fired. "[Fierro] stood up and held the gun upside-down and sideways and held it to her head and said, ‘This is not the way you kill yourself.' It was perfect. She's good."
Cornwell recalls a 1985 case in which a crabber and oysterman was accused of abducting a young mother of two from her home, murdering her and dumping her body in the Rappahannock River. The woman's body was found floating in a cove with a rope wrapped around her neck, the other end tied to a cinderblock. Her body had seven large cuts.
Though the fisherman's defense attorney contended the cuts had been accidentally made by the propellers of boats that had passed the body, "Marcella believed the cuts were deliberate, to cause the marine life to eat her and make her unrecognizable," Cornwell says. "Dr. Fierro said that the cuts were consistent with a knife." The smug defense attorney handed Fierro the fisherman's knife and asked her to show him how the cuts were made. "There was a cardboard box near the [witness] stand, and Dr. Fierro stabs the knife into the box. ‘It was done like that,' she said." The cuts in the box clearly matched the ones on the body. "People in the courtroom started clapping," Cornwell recalls. The fisherman was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to more than 99 years. "I have seen her take [defense lawyers] apart because she knows what she is talking about."
In her 30-plus-year career, Fierro has worked some of the city's most notorious murders, including the South Side Strangler and Golden Years serial killings.
The Strangler murders — upon which Cornwell's first book, "Postmortem," was loosely based — were
also the first case in the nation in which DNA evidence was used to prosecute a murder. Working with the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, headed then as now by Dr. Paul B. Ferrara, Fierro and then-chief medical examiner Dr. David K. Wiecking were able to extract evidence that convicted Timothy Wilson Spencer of the rape-strangulation murders of three Richmond women in 1987. But an unexpected thing happened: The DNA evidence also identified Spencer as the killer of two Northern Virginia women, one of whom was murdered in 1984. A mentally retarded man who had pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty was freed after serving more than four years in prison for the 1984 murder. It was a landmark case that changed forensic science and criminal justice.
What Fierro remembers most, though, is the brutality. "Those were terrible homicides, so cruel," she recalls. "He was waiting for these women in their homes. If you can imagine coming home and finding a person in your home waiting to do you damage; he wants to beat you, sexually abuse you and who obviously is enjoying it. When you hit your door, what's your immediate feeling? Safe. It's such a profound violation."
Fierro could see the horror the victims went through: "You look at their injuries. With living patients, you see there's fear, upset, pain. It's not a great leap to know what they went through before they died."
But Fierro is not just concerned about the dead. "Her examination of death is all about the living," Cornwell says. "She's incredibly compassionate. She tries to learn from death so that she might prevent another death."
Because of her job, Fierro allows that she was "a fanatic about safety" when it came time for her own kids to learn to drive. Now, she says, with so many angry drivers on the roads, "my worry is that they know how to drive defensively."
A few years ago, the General Assembly allotted funds for an in-depth multiyear study of domestic violence, one of the leading causes of deaths Fierro sees. Using a public-health model, the medical examiner's office collects every bit of evidence they can concerning a domestic violence-related death from multiple agencies, from the police to social services, in an effort to identify trends and moments when interventions might have saved lives. Fierro's office publishes annual reports of its findings.
"Death is a very good endpoint to measure," says Fierro. "You either have fewer deaths or you don't." As an example, she points to a study conducted the year after the General Assembly passed legislation requiring motorcycle operators to wear helmets; the deaths were halved.
Recently, the chief medical examiner's office landed a $1.4 million, five-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of six pilot states nationwide doing in-depth studies of the causes of homicides — similar to the domestic-violence study — in an effort to prevent future homicides. The massive data collection effort is the beginning of the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS). The grant pays for new full- and part-time staffers devoted to the project, as well as hardware and training.
Additionally, thanks to a $1.5 million gift from Cornwell in 1999, Fierro and Ferrara, her counterpart in the state forensic lab, founded the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine (which first appeared in Cornwell's books as a fictional organization founded by Scarpetta) to train professionals in forensic science and forensic medicine.
Around a thousand professionals worldwide have traveled to Virginia to take training classes from the institute, which also offers general classes about forensic science, DNA evidence and death investigation to everyone from doctors and lawyers to media reporters and high school and college students. The institute also offers fellowships for DNA examiners, forensic scientists and forensic pathologists, who work toward certification for their pathology board exams. And the institute will be reaching more students this fall, when it will offer distance-learning classes online for college credits or continuing medical education credits. It's "a forensic science Amazon.com," Fierro quips.
The medical examiner's office also participates in a forensic science academy overseen by Ferrara's Division of Forensic Science that trains crime-scene investigators.
"When we go home at the end of the day, our doctors and staff, and we think about [a murder]," Fierro says, "everybody else just felt bad, but we did something positive about it. You're telling that person's tale; answering questions for the family, satisfying police, assisting the criminologists. Even on days when I'd like to butt my head against the wall, even on my worst days, I'm never really sorry I'm doing my job." —Freelancer Joan Tupponce contributed to this report.