SKILLMAN, N.J. - The sons of Cooper University Health System chief executive John Sheridan and his wife, Joyce, have hired a nationally known pathologist to assist them as forensic tests are conducted in the investigation into their parents' deaths.
The recruitment of Michael Baden - once called to offer professional expertise by the defense in the O.J. Simpson murder trial - is the latest development in a month-old case marked by little public information.
In a statement released to The Inquirer on Thursday, the four Sheridan sons said "no one is more eager for answers than the family," and they confirmed they had hired Baden "to help them understand the information obtained from the forensic investigation."
"They appreciate that conducting a complex investigation takes time and do not expect to have anything to say until that investigation has been completed," the statement, provided by a family representative, said.
Baden, who has hosted an HBO series and is a contributor to Fox News, has worked on many high-profile cases. He was recently enlisted to do a private autopsy on Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old shot in August by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Baden was hired by Brown's family and lawyers as the death prompted massive protests and national race-relations debates.
Baden, reached Thursday night, declined to comment on his role in the Sheridan case, saying, "I think anything should come from the family."
The Sheridan sons - Mark, Matt, Dan, and Tim - in their statement referred all questions to the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office.
The Prosecutor's Office has offered few details about the circumstances of the Sept. 28 deaths of the Sheridans. The two were found in their bedroom during a fire that was set in their home in the Skillman section of Montgomery Township. The blaze was contained to the bedroom.
John Sheridan, 72 - Cooper's CEO and a GOP insider with influence on public policy - was pronounced dead at the scene. Joyce Sheridan, 69, a retired schoolteacher, was taken to Princeton Medical Center and declared dead shortly after.
The Prosecutor's Office has said there was no threat to the community and that it was awaiting laboratory analyses and the medical examiner's determinations before announcing its findings.
"No additional information available at this time," Capt. Jack Bennett, the Prosecutor's Office spokesman, said in an e-mail Thursday to The Inquirer. He did not answer questions about which tests were being done, where, or when officials expected final results.
The trickle of information from officials on the deaths of the prominent couple has fueled speculation as to what occurred at the Sheridan home.
Philadelphia defense attorney Paul Hetznecker, who is not involved in the Sheridan case, said "it would be unusual in a high-profile case not to have more information released to the public regarding the manner of death."
"The family must have questions about the official investigation for them to have hired their own expert at this point," Hetznecker said.
'Wanted an expert'
Tom Wilson, the Sheridan family representative, however, said Baden's consultation shouldn't be read into.
"They wanted an expert to help them understand this," he said. "They're not doctors, they're not scientists . . . they are just lay people who want to understand what happened."
Wilson said the Sheridans' remains were released to the family, which held a private funeral after a public memorial.
As the Prosecutor's Office maintains it is awaiting "laboratory analyses," experts say the vague phrasing could mean many things. The range of possible reviews underway could translate to days, weeks - or, in some cases, even months.
New Jersey defense attorney Rocco Cipparone Jr., a former federal prosecutor, said the forensics of a case could be difficult in part because a variety of agencies may be involved.
Fatal arson investigations would likely include toxicology tests to determine whether the victims ingested alcohol or drugs and, if so, whether it was voluntary, said Cipparone, who has no involvement in the Sheridan case.
Experts also say investigators are likely testing evidence found in the room. That may include blood splatter, DNA, fingerprints, or property that can help explain how the fire spread and whether an accelerant was used.
"I'm sure they're trying to figure out everything the Sheridans did as far back as they can," said Michael Curwin, a recently retired first assistant prosecutor in Gloucester County with no involvement in the Sheridan case.
Toxicology reports, if being conducted, can sometimes be completed in several days. Barry Logan, chief of forensic toxicology at NMS Labs in Willow Grove, Montgomery County, said private centers like his typically return results within 10 days. But the same is often not true of government facilities.
"Frequently, labs are operating under backlogs of dozens to hundreds of cases," Logan said. They could take weeks or months, he said.
Investigating agencies can ask for tests to be expedited, but those requests are often reserved for cases with pressing elements - like a threat to the public - experts said.
Though law enforcement agencies often use state laboratories for tests, a New Jersey State Police spokesman declined to comment on whether the state facilities were being used in the Sheridan case.
Cases are coded in a case log and state police might not know which agency submitted materials for testing, Capt. Stephen Jones said.
State labs can perform a wide range of tests, such as ballistics, fingerprints, and forensic analysis, as well as review blood and other bodily fluids gathered by investigators.
Philadelphia defense attorney Jeffrey Lindy, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia and former assistant state prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., who handled arson and while-collar crimes, questioned what injuries the couple suffered.
Lindy, who has no connection to the Sheridan case, said it was possible the fire was set to hide another crime and that authorities "absolutely know" whether anyone else was involved and the cause of death. The more complicated the crime, the more complicated the investigation and the longer it takes, he said.
"In all likelihood, they have a theory," Lindy said of Somerset County law enforcement, "but it is possible that it is no more than just a theory right now."