Expert says intruder likely killed the Sheridans

20150618-John-Sheridan
John Sheridan at Cooper University Hospital, where he was CEO, in 2008. A renowned forensic pathologist says there are multiple reasons to think Sheridan and his wife were slain by an intruder.

A renowned forensic pathologist concluded that John P. Sheridan and his wife more likely were brutally slain by an intruder and that the Somerset County prosecutor misinterpreted evidence in the high-profile investigation.

The findings by Michael Baden, detailed in a 15-page affidavit obtained by the Inquirer, offer a harrowing interpretation of the last moments of Sheridan and wife Joyce, who were found dead Sept. 28, 2014, inside their Montgomery Township, N.J., home.

Instead of a murder-suicide carried out by John Sheridan, as the prosecutor concluded, Baden found that the CEO of Cooper Health System and his wife, a retired teacher, more likely were preyed upon by a man who killed them and then set a fire to destroy the evidence.

"The forensic evidence is consistent with an individual wearing gloves, entering the house through an unlocked door to intentionally harm the Sheridans or to commit a burglary that went awry," writes Baden, a former chief medical examiner in New York City who has conducted more than 20,000 autopsies in a career that spans 50 years.

Baden's assessment is in line with the belief of the Sheridans' four sons, who hired the prominent pathologist shortly after the deaths. They have long argued that their father was a devoted husband and they don't believe he killed his wife of 47 years.

"In my opinion it is more likely a double homicide," Baden said in an interview Friday. "If it's murder-suicide, it's a very unusual murder-suicide."

The affidavit offers a thorough repudiation of the conclusions reached by Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano, who was removed from office earlier this year when Gov. Christie said he "lost confidence" in the prosecutor.

Baden's damning review raises the possibility that the forensic evidence was so compromised by incompetence that it could undermine a future criminal case. More chilling, if correct, it means a killer is still on the loose.

The family, using Baden's report, has asked the state medical examiner to overturn the suicide ruling.

Officials from the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office, New Jersey Office of Medical Examiner, and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office declined to comment on Baden's findings. In addition to his affidavit, Baden included 67 pages of supporting documentation, also obtained by the Inquirer.

Among Baden's conclusions:

DNA found on a bloody knife in the bedroom matches that of a male, but not the genetic profiles of Sheridan or his four sons - Mark, Matt, Tim, and Dan. Blood spatter near the master suite is consistent with an attack there.

None of the knives recovered at the house caused Sheridan's deep, thin wounds. A lethal stab wound to Sheridan's neck is consistent with being stabbed by an attacker and would not be considered a superficial, self-inflicted wound, as the state medical examiner concluded.

Bruising across Sheridan's upper body and five broken ribs are consistent with blunt-force trauma caused by a fire poker. A chipped front tooth that the state pathologist failed to document is consistent with Sheridan being punched.

The lack of Joyce Sheridan's blood on John Sheridan makes it unlikely that he was her attacker.

John Sheridan showed no signs of suicidal behavior before the deaths.

"The great majority of persons who take their own lives have histories of seeing physicians for depression, of speaking of suicide, and of prior suicide attempts - none of these indicators are present in Mr. Sheridan's history," Baden wrote.

Baden stops short of recommending that John Sheridan's death be changed to homicide. Instead, he suggests the manner of death should be changed to undetermined. He said Friday that evidence is subject to interpretation and he cannot rule out suicide conclusively, nor can he say with absolute certainty that Sheridan's death is a homicide.

Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Dennis J. Cogan, who reviewed Baden's report and the Somerset County prosecutor's findings at the request of Inquirer, agreed with Baden's interpretation.

"Baden has clearly nailed it here. The missing knife is so overwhelming that there's a third person who did this," said Cogan, who prosecuted homicides in the 1970s for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

Cogan said it appears county investigators believed from the onset it was murder-suicide and then tried to make the facts fit. He called it the classic "fallacy of inverse reasoning."

Cogan said the prosecutor's suggestion that the missing suicide weapon could have melted in the fire is "absurd"; that the determination that Sheridan could not be excluded as the person who left DNA on evidence found in the house - as cited in the prosecutor's report - "means nothing"; and that the absence of suicidal behavior or a motive to kill his wife is a major omission in the state's case.

"It's a mess, and I don't know that they'll ever be able to find out who did it," Cogan said.

Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the department of sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Baden raises a number of important issues that support the theory that Sheridan was murdered.

The deep wound that nicked the jugular is very unusual in a suicide, Kobilinsky said. An expert also typically can determine whether blood spatter - such as that found outside the bedroom - was caused by a stabbing or blunt force. Had authorities tested that blood, as Baden noted, it may have indicated whether Sheridan was attacked at the top of the stairs, Kobilinsky said.

"Physical evidence doesn't lie, and you have to interpret it correctly," Kobilinsky said. There appears to be no motive for Sheridan to kill his wife, or himself, he said.

The parallel investigation into the deaths of John Sheridan, 72, and Joyce, 69, began just six days after the couple were found dead.

On Oct. 4, 2014, Baden conducted an external review of Joyce Sheridan's body, and did his own autopsy of John Sheridan at the North Regional Medical Examiner's Office. He immediately identified problems, Mark Sheridan said in an interview.

The family had been told by investigators that John Sheridan had four "superficial" cuts consistent with hesitation wounds found in a suicide. Baden disagreed. He noted deep stab wounds, including a fifth one on Sheridan's neck.

Authorities dismissed "the stab wound to John Sheridan's neck and right jugular vein as 'superficial.' In fact, that stab wound was just as lethal as the homicidal stab wound to Joyce Sheridan's chest and aorta," Baden said in his report. He described the "orientation" of the wound as "downward and slightly forward," consistent with having been inflicted by a third party.

Somerset investigators recovered two kitchen knives in the bedroom. A large bloody carving knife had been used in the attack on Joyce Sheridan, who had been stabbed and cut numerous times in the chest, head, and hand. A serrated bread knife had not been used on John or Joyce Sheridan, local authorities and Baden agreed. Both blades were too wide to cause Sheridan's thin, deep wounds, Baden noted.

"A weapon in the shape of a stiletto-type knife caused John Sheridan's stab wounds," Baden wrote in his report.

A prosecutor's report notes melted metal found in the bedroom. Baden concluded that the mass, composition of the metal, and lack of blood made it unlikely that it was a knife or the suicide weapon.

Baden wrote that there was another deep stab wound on the left side of Sheridan's neck, and a chest wound two inches deep that extended downward into the muscle - also not superficial.

John Sheridan also had significant blunt-force trauma, Baden noted. Specifically, he had linear bruising on his chest with two broken ribs on the left side, and three broken ribs on the right side consistent with being "struck across the chest by a wrought-iron fire poker recovered from the Sheridans' bedroom, a room that does not contain a fireplace."

A March 2015 report, issued by then-prosecutor Soriano, said the broken ribs are consistent with an armoire falling on Sheridan.

Although the state autopsy report documented that John Sheridan's "teeth are natural and apparently in good state of repair," Baden wrote that Sheridan had a chipped front tooth he said is consistent with being punched in the face, and not consistent with having the armoire fall on him.

Although Baden did not elaborate in his report, Mark Sheridan said Baden explained to the family there was no bruising or lacerations on his father's face that would be present had the armoire fallen with such force to chip the front tooth and break his father's ribs.

In its report, the prosecutor's office said John Sheridan could not be excluded as the person whose DNA was found on the bloody knife recovered. His DNA was on the handle of a gas container found in the bedroom.

Baden said it is to be expected that Sheridan's DNA would be on his belongings, and that it is not evidence that he set the fire or killed his wife.

Baden had State Police DNA reports reviewed by expert Henry C. Lee of the Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, Conn. Among several DNA samples taken from the knife, one genetic profile did not match John Sheridan or his sons. Baden also said Joyce Sheridan's blood likely would be on her assailant, but none was found on her husband.

"That John Sheridan had no evidence of injuries or blood transfer resulting from a struggle with Joyce Sheridan further calls into question that he was her attacker," Baden wrote.

Since sending Baden's report to the state medical examiner and state attorney general in December, family members have heard little on their request to amend the death certificate. After repeatedly notifying the state they planned to proceed with a lawsuit, E. Robbie Miller, counsel for the Attorney General's Office, on Tuesday sent a two-sentence response that said, "Please be advised that we anticipate a decision on this matter within the next 30 days."

bboyer@phillynews.com

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