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The Strange Case of Dr. Massello and the Ligature Marks

The case against me is like a castle of cards. Pullout one card at the bottom and the whole thing collapses. That one card is the testimony of Dr. William Massello, the Assistant Chief Medical Examiner, that Marion was dead in the last photos I took of her.

This idea was first mentioned to me by the police on June 7, 2003, in an interview before I was arrested. The same story was later repeated by the State Police profiler during an interview in jail. In both cases they told me that Marion was dead in the photos because Dr. Massello had said that he could see lividity in her body in the photos. Lividity is the settling of the blood in the body that occurs after death. They told me that Dr. Massello had told them that this indicated that Marion had been dead for some time when the photos were taken. These interviews were recorded so there is no question that they told me this.

My lawyers and I spent considerable time, effort and money working on ways to prove that lividity would have been impossible to see in such digital photographs. It was not until early in 2007, April as I recall, that my lawyer suggested that we should confront the Medical Examiner on this matter. He and I went to see Dr. Massello at his Roanoke, VA, office. We were both stunned when we pulled out prints of the photos and asked him about lividity. Dr. Massello indignantly snorted that he had never said anything of the kind, that it was ridiculous, and that there was absolutely no way to detect any lividity in the photos. The police had simply lied to us about the Medical Examiner's statements to them, and had misled us about his intended testimony for four years!

In fact, Dr. Massello said, he had concluded that Marion was dead in the last photos because ligature marks from ropes on her thighs had not vanished, and that it was his opinion that such marks would disappear in "a few minutes" on a living person.

When I had finished photographing the test suspension with Marion on that day, she said she was tired and wanted to lie down. We removed all of the ropes except those around her upper thighs in two bands. Those were the ropes that had supported her body weight during the suspension, and were quite tight. For some reason, she would not let us remove those and. went to lie down. She slept while Lew and I did another photo set with Maria. As they were leaving the studio, Lew reminded me not to leave those ropes on much longer because they were quite tight and he was concerned that they
might cut off circulation.

I then woke Marion and she wanted to do some playing around photos with the ropes on, so I shot a number of photos of her with the ropes on and then we took a break. Some time later she still wanted some more photos, and I convinced her to do them without the ropes. I needed her help to get them off, since they were tight and the knots a bit complicated. We then shot those last photos without the ropes.

I was astonished that Dr. Massello would think that rope marks, or marks from tight jewelry, waistbands, etc., would vanish in a few minutes. Like all photographers who work with live models, I knew that such ligature marks could be very troublesome to eliminate, and often persisted for hours. I generally had a two hour rule for any model who came in wearing underclothes with elastic bands, since I knew it would be at least that long before I could photograph them without facing the hassle of retouching out the marks later in Photoshop. Dr. Massello was adamant that such marks would always vanish in a few minutes, regardless of how tight the binding. I asked him for his authority on this, and he grumbled "all the textbooks". After this very unsatisfactory meeting with him, I arranged through interlibrary loan to get "all of the textbooks", that is all recent textbooks on pathology. There was not one word in any of them about persistence of ligature marks in living people. Meanwhile I made prints of some photos that clearly showed such marks for many minutes to hours after removal of the binding. We went to see Dr. Massello again, carrying the textbooks, but he just scoffed at the textbooks and refused to look at the photos. He was sticking to his story, I pointed out to him that Marion's wrists had been unbound more than an hour before the photos in question, and the marks on her wrists were even more visible than on her thighs. He refused to listen.

Anyone reading this can decide the validity of Dr. Massello's claims with a quick experiment. Put a tight binding around a wrist, ankle, thigh, wherever. A rubber band will do, or a piece of rope or cord. Leave it in place for fifteen or twenty minutes. Then take it off and time how long the marks remain. There is, of course, some individual variation, but the marks will be there for more than an hour, usually several hours. Dr. Massello may know his way around dead bodies, but he is sadly lacking in knowledge about living people.

I wanted to have an expert at trial to refute Dr. Massello, but there was neither time nor money to get one. So the jury believed Dr. Massello when he testified at my trial. I was convicted, and imprisoned, on false medical testimony.

Since the trial I have been in contact with several medical experts who all say that Dr. Massello is wrong, some in very strong terms! Of course, none of this mattered to me, since I knew that Marion was very much alive, talking and joking, when we took those photos.

Also, about the photos taken that day, it is odd that the first 27 photos I took that day are missing from the Microdrive the police took from me that night. Lew, Maria and I all remember that I took photos at the beginning of our session, and the only reason for the session was to educate me which the photos were to help with. I have a complete record of every single photo I took with that 10D camera from the first day I had it until then. Those 27 photos are the only block of photos missing. There are also photos missing that I took after the last one remaining on the Microdrive. We verified this with the prosecution's own witness, who put an empty CF card into the camera and shot a couple of photos in the courtroom. Between the last image I shot and those courtroom shots, many photos were missing. The camera had been in police custody the whole time, so unless one of them went out on a shooting spree with the camera, there are photos of Marion missing.

Going back to Dr. Massello for a moment: At my trial he testified that there were no needle marks on Marion's body when he did a pre-autopsy examination. When asked, he said that he had been very careful in his inspection. Then he was asked how he had missed the needle marks on her arm and the side of her neck. These were made by the Emergency Medical Technicians in trying to save her. They first tried to find a vein in her arm, and when they were not successful after several attempts, then they moved to the side of her neck where they were able to install an IV line. Dr. Massello had no explanation for missing those very visible needle marks.