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Autopsy trumps body-freezing

By Mary Jo Melone
12/10/2009 © Health News Florida

The nation’s leading cryogenics organization lost a legal ruling in Tampa today to prevent an autopsy on a 48-year-old man who wanted his body frozen until he could be brought back to life. 

After the hearing and a hurried round of negotiations, Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Vernard Adams told Health News Florida that he will keep the cuts to an absolute minimum out of "kindness" to the family. "I don't see any sense in it being a hard process," he said.

As an example, he said, he will cut open the skull but will scan the brain rather than cut into it for tissue samples.

Alcor's attorney, Clifford A. Wolff of Ft. Lauderdale, had argued against the autopsy partly out of deference to Miller's religion. Miller was Jewish, and traditionally Jews considered autopsy a desecration of the body, said Rabbi Uriel Rivkin, who attended the hearing.

Wolff would not discuss the negotiations that led to the compromise with Dr. Adams. "Humanity prevailed, and we're grateful," he said. 

Earlier, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Martha J. Cook told Adams he could resume the autopsy on Michael Ned Miller, which was interrupted right after the "Y" incision by a call from Alcor Life Extension Foundation Inc. of Scottsdale, AZ. 

Cook also denied Alcor's request for a stay pending an appeal of her order, saying, "The court will not interfere with (the medical examiner's) duty."

At Thursday morning's hearing, Cook allowed neither side to put on witnesses. She said the law giving medical examiners the right to override private preferences about autopsies is clear.

Miller was found dead by his sister in his north Tampa apartment on Dec. 3, ten days after a leg surgery. Medical examiner Adams told Health News Florida that he began conducting an autopsy because Miller “had a history of prescription drug abuse, and I am concerned that he (may have) died of an accidental drug overdose.” 

The sister, 42-year-old Cynthia Miller, cried when Cook gave the ruling. She told Health News Florida later she was upset that the judge didn't let her speak. She said she didn't understand why Adams couldn't simply take a blood sample to determine whether Miller had died with drugs in his system.

Alcor argued in a court filing that an autopsy would “seriously impair the cryonic process” and “frustrate the purpose” of the body freezing: to keep his body preserved until some point in the distant future when scientists will know how to fix what killed him.

Miller, a Navy veteran, had been in bad health for years, according to the suit. He had a heart defect, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, eye problems and past leg surgeries.

He had long been separated from his wife, the suit said. When he signed up with Alcor in May 2005, the documents gave Alcor the right to override next of kin and argue for him in court.

Adams said the autopsy had begun when he got a call from Alcor's attorney about the court filing. “We stopped,” he said. “The body is in the cooler.”

Alcor is known—infamously perhaps—for being the final resting place of baseball legend Ted Williams. A former Alcor executive, Larry Johnson, charged in October in the book Frozen that untrained technicians used crude instruments to behead Williams and mutilated his head by hitting it with monkey wrenches. Alcor dismissed the charges as “maximum tabloid shock value.” 

--Mary Jo Melone is an independent journalist in Tampa. She can be reached by e-mail.