An expert pathologist and a career law enforcement official say it is inexcusable that after one year New Jersey authorities have failed to determine whether a state pathologist correctly ruled that former Cooper Health executive John Sheridan killed himself.
The two specialists both say the decision should have been made soon after Sheridan's four sons petitioned the state medical examiner last December to change the manner of death to undetermined.
"If it took a month, that's probably too long. Six months is crazy and makes no sense. A year is irresponsible," said Edwin Stier, a former state and federal prosecutor who once served as chief for the criminal division of the New Jersey Attorney General's Office. Now in private practice, Stier has a career spanning more than five decades that includes supervising investigations by both private and public agencies.
Renowned forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht has more than 50 years of experience that includes work as a government consultant on the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy and expertise on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, testifying before Congress three times. Wecht said in an interview with the Inquirer that it was "inexcusable" that New Jersey authorities have failed to reach a determination in a case he said was "not that complex."
Wecht partly faults the state's criminal justice system that gives the attorney general - with no medical or science background - supervision over all New Jersey medical examiners.
"There's no reason for this delay," Wecht said of the obligation of the state medical examiner to respond to the Sheridan family's petition to change the manner of death, which is listed on the death certificate.
The New Jersey Medical Examiner's Office, now headed by Andrew Falzon, has three options: Refuse to change the suicide ruling, amend the manner of John Sheridan's death to homicide or accidental, or change the manner of death to undetermined.
Sheridan, 72, CEO of Cooper University Health System, and his wife, Joyce, 69, a retired schoolteacher, were found dead in their Montgomery Township home Sept. 28, 2014.
Both had numerous deep stab wounds, and the master bedroom suite where the couple were found had been set on fire. The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office closed its six-month criminal investigation after concluding John Sheridan fatally stabbed his wife with a sharp kitchen knife, started the fire, and thrust a narrow object into his own neck and chest to kill himself. The weapon has never been found.
The couple's four adult sons - Mark, Matthew, Dan, and Tim - have maintained since 2014 that authorities botched the investigation. The family has said that the pathologist who did the autopsies on the couple ruled the deaths were a murder-suicide to cover up incompetence by county investigators and the state Medical Examiner's Office.
The sons hired a private pathologist who concluded, in an affidavit included in their petition, that John and Joyce Sheridan were more likely murdered by an intruder.
Mark Sheridan, an attorney heading the efforts to change the manner of death, declined to comment for this article. Earlier this year, he expressed frustration in an interview with the Inquirer that the Medical Examiner's Office has been unresponsive.
Gov. Christie this year has appointed a new Somerset County prosecutor, a state medical examiner, and a new attorney general, who oversees the medical examiner. Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the attorney general and medical examiner, said, "We are not going to comment or offer anyone for an interview" for this article.
The governor has previously said he does not think it would be appropriate for him to get involved in the Sheridan case. Brian Murray, a spokesman for the governor's office, in an email, said, "We have nothing to add to that."
Somerset County's prosecutor, Mike Robertson, said in an email last week that when he was appointed acting prosecutor, reviewing the Sheridan files "was one of the first things I did." He declined further comment. Earlier this year, he said he would decide whether the criminal investigation should be reopened after the medical examiner ruled on the petition.
An open letter
Stier said the medical examiner's delay puts Robertson in a difficult position. He noted evidence deteriorates over time and at some point investigators may have to return to the Sheridan house to collect what was left behind. Stier contends that one of the biggest mistakes was a failure by Somerset County investigators to collect any evidence outside the bedroom because authorities early on had assumed the deaths were a murder-suicide.
The state medical examiner has an obligation to rule on the family's petition in a timely manner, Stier said.
Stier is not involved with the case but is among 200 people, including three former governors, who signed an open letter this year saying they believe John Sheridan's death certificate should be changed and the criminal investigation reopened. Given the conflict between the family and authorities who conducted the initial investigation, Stier said a special prosecutor or a federal agency could be appointed to reopen the criminal investigation.
John Sheridan, a prominent Republican, served on Christie's transition team and was transportation secretary for Gov. Tom Kean; he joined Cooper in 2008. Stier said he cannot understand why Christie has not instructed the attorney general and the medical examiner to make it a priority to address the family's petition.
"I've never seen anything like this, so horrific," Stier said. "Everybody who has the authority to do something about it has turned their backs."
Wecht said,"There's no justification in the world . . . for such an inordinate time delay."
'What more is there?'
After more than a year of trying to get the manner of John Sheridan's death listed as undetermined, the family members last December filed a formal petition with the medical examiner. In June, they filed a lawsuit in New Jersey appellate court. No hearing has been scheduled.
Wecht said that the medical examiner should have all the information needed, such as investigative reports, medical and lab reports, and photographs, to make a decision. "What more is there? There's no new information," he said.
Given the circumstances of the Sheridan case, Wecht said the appellate court could order the medical examiner to make a decision within 30 days.
Wecht said the Sheridan case is an example of why medical examiners should be "totally separate" from the Attorney General's Office. "In my opinion, it's a conflict of interest," Wecht said. "How can they rule in an objective manner when they are all part of the same group?"