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Review of baby's death frees father

John W. Peel told investigators his 8-week-old son died by accident in 1998 when he fell off a bed. After an autopsy, Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood didn't buy it.

Wood told detectives it was a classic shaken baby homicide.

Peel, then 18, was charged with first-degree murder and later sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading to a lesser manslaughter charge.

Now, in a remarkable turnaround, Peel has been set free after Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe took the rare step of asking a judge to throw out the conviction and sentence.

"I felt in good conscience we had to walk away from it," said McCabe.

McCabe questioned Peel's guilt after a doctor who reviewed Wood's work said he found no evidence of shaken baby syndrome.

The Peel case is the latest controversy for Wood since her reversal on the cause of death of a Scientologist led prosecutors to drop charges against the church. That eventually led to Wood's forced retirement in 2000.

McCabe said he now questions whether Peel is guilty.

"It's kind of like I can't be sure anymore," McCabe said in an interview Wednesday. ". . . I don't see how we could just bury the new evidence and let him stay in prison."

McCabe said he doesn't recall ever asking a judge to set aside a conviction and sentence on a major death case.

The 22-year-old Peel served four years before his release Oct. 16. He could not be reached for comment.

Peel, a Publix stock clerk, had been living with his 17-year-old girlfriend at her grandparents' St. Petersburg home in July 1998. The baby, John Peel Jr., began crying about 4:30 one morning, investigators said, when Peel got out of bed to give him a bottle of formula.

Peel told detectives he placed John on his chest and then fell asleep as he lay on a twin bed. Peel said the baby fell off his body and hit the concrete floor.

Peel pleaded no contest to a charge of aggravated manslaughter of a child in December 2000.

But Norman Cannella Sr., Peel's lawyer, said Peel didn't plead out because he was guilty, but because he faced life if he went to trial. He said Peel always insisted he didn't kill his son.

"When you're dealing with the possibility of dying in prison and you are at the time just 20 years old, that's an awesome situation to find oneself in," Cannella said.

Wood, who now works as a consultant, stood by her homicide finding.

"There are disagreements in forensic medicine," Wood said. "We're each allowed our own opinion. But I'm telling you that that child was murdered. No mistake. The baby was shaken to death."

McCabe initially asked Wood's successor, Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin, to re-examine the Peel autopsy earlier this year. McCabe did so after mistakes by Wood's office led to the dismissal of charges in another shaken baby case in April.

Thogmartin later brought in Dr. Stephen Nelson, Polk County's medical examiner, to review the case.

During the autopsy, Wood said she observed "gross" hemorrhaging in the child's eyes. This is a telltale clue of shaken baby syndrome and the primary piece of evidence leading to her conclusion that the baby's death was a homicide.

Although Wood said the hemorrhaging was visible with the naked eye, she conducted a microscopic examination of eye tissue months later and could find no evidence of it. She nonetheless stood by her homicide finding.

Thogmartin, who could not be reached for comment, and Nelson found no evidence of hemorrhaging in their own microscopic review of tissue.

In a letter to Thogmartin, Nelson said, "If one is entertaining the suggestion that this infant's death represents shaken baby syndrome, where are the autopsy findings associated with shaken baby syndrome? None exist in this case."

Nelson said he would have concluded the baby's death was an accident.

"The hemorrhaging is either there or it's not," Nelson said in an interview. "It doesn't disappear. We're left with the conclusion that it wasn't there to begin with."

Another forensic pathologist, Dr. Mary Case, had reviewed the case at the request of prosecutors before the plea. Case agreed with Wood that the case was a homicide, prosecutors say. She could not be reached for comment.

Case "is one of the world's leading experts on shaken baby syndrome," Wood said. "If Mary Case says it's a homicide, then it is."

Wood said it is possible evidence of hemorrhaging wouldn't be seen in every tissue sample examined under the microscope. Some samples might show it, others might not, she said.

"I didn't make it up," Wood said.

This latest cloud on Wood's career comes several years after her reversal on the cause of death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

Then came the death of 7-year-old Rebecca Long in Pasco County. Her father, David Long, was charged with first-degree murder after an autopsy by a doctor in Wood's office. Wood approved the finding. But the charge was dismissed after Thogmartin's office found the girl died of pneumonia.

"I would be willing to bet that there are more cases out there, that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Mina Morgan, Long's attorney.

McCabe said a review of other recent shaken baby cases found no problems.

_ Times staff writer Cary Davis contributed to this report.