Tampa man's wish to be frozen after death prompts fight over autopsy

TAMPA — When authorities found Michael Ned Miller dead in his apartment last week, the 48-year-old man wore a medical bracelet with explicit instructions: no autopsy, no embalming.

Deeming Miller's death suspicious, the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office decided to perform an autopsy anyway. But just as a doctor began to cut open Miller's chest, a cryonics company called and asked him to stop.

The reason: Miller wanted his body preserved at ultra-cold temperatures in the same Arizona facility where baseball legend Ted Williams' remains are housed. An autopsy would dash his hopes of one day being revived and restored to good health.

The medical examiner's office wouldn't release Miller's body. So Thursday, the two sides went to court to sort out the legal, religious and emotional complications in a case that may be the first of its kind in Florida.

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Cynthia Miller, 42, says her brother didn't want to die.

Plagued by bad health and living off disability payments after a car crash, the Navy veteran signed on as a member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 2005.

"He believed in the science," his sister said.

Court records show he wanted his entire body cryonically preserved, a service that Alcor says costs $150,000. Many people pay for it with life insurance policies.

After they die, Alcor members are stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus-196 degrees Celsius. The goal is to preserve cells and DNA until science makes it possible to reverse death.

This fall, a former Alcor executive published a tell-all book claiming that Williams' severed head, which was frozen separately from his body, had been abused by staff members. The company called that allegation and others of poor conditions at its facility "pure fabrication."

Keeping the brain and neurological system intact is essential to cryonic preservation, Alcor attorney Clifford Wolff said.

In Miller's case, Alcor representatives and his family were alarmed when they learned that the medical examiner's office planned to perform a full autopsy, which would include removing and possibly cutting his brain.

Most people don't undergo an autopsy when they die. But state law gives medical examiners the discretion to conduct one for deaths that occur under suspicious or unusual circumstances.

Miller was found dead on Dec. 3 in his apartment off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, where he lived alone. He had recently undergone leg surgery and was prescribed pain pills.

Alcor attorneys argued that there was no sign of foul play or suicide. Dr. Vernard Adams, the county's medical examiner, agreed. But given that Miller had a history of prescription drug abuse, hypertension, bipolar disorder and high cholesterol, Adams believed there was a "reasonable possibility" that he died of an accidental overdose.

Without an autopsy, Adams said, he would have to make a finding of an undetermined manner of death, which would cause problems for relatives if they tried to collect life insurance.

On Monday, Alcor sued Adams and Hillsborough County to block the procedure. An emergency hearing took place Thursday morning.

Wolff, an Alcor attorney based in Fort Lauderdale, said a full autopsy on Miller served no public interest. He noted that one of the people pushing for the autopsy was Miller's estranged wife who lives in Pennsylvania, someone he had not seen in eight years.

"That's private, prurient curiosity, which should not outweigh the rights of Mr. Miller," Wolff said.

Adams said the estranged wife's request for an autopsy did not influence his decision. Nor was he swayed, he said, by any personal beliefs about cryonics.

"I don't care how people dispose of a body," he told the St. Petersburg Times. "The autopsy comes first. Then they get the body for disposition."

Wolff said Miller, who was Jewish, did not want his body desecrated for religious reasons.

Adams said in his experience, Orthodox Jews typically worried about burying a loved one as quickly as possible rather than trying to prevent decomposition as Alcor does.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Martha Cook ruled against the cryonics company, saying she would not interfere with Adams' legal duty.

"He is to perform what he sees fit," Cook said.

The outcome didn't surprise the medical examiner. But after the hearing, he met with Alcor attorneys and agreed to try to minimize the dissection of Miller's body.

Alcor planned to pay for brain scanning that might preclude the need to cut into Miller's skull.

"I'm handling it the same way I would any other objection to an autopsy," Adams said. "There's no point in being a hard case about it."

Ideally, Alcor prefers to preserve a body within 24 hours of death, Wolff said. But he believed that Miller's body, which is being kept at 38 degrees by the medical examiner, could still be cryonically preserved.

"We are pleased," he said, "that Alcor will eventually receive the anatomical donation that Mr. Miller desired."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

FAST FACTS

What is cryonics?

Alcor's Web site calls cryonics a "speculative practice'' involving the use of extreme cold to preserve some or all of a dead person's body for decades or centuries until scientific and medical research advance to a point that enables the preservation process to be reversed and the person to be restored to life.

Tampa man's wish to be frozen after death prompts fight over autopsy 12/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 11, 2009 12:49pm]

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