Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Toxicology

Devious Doc?

Dr. Bill Sybers
Dr. Bill Sybers

Dr. Bill Sybers was a Florida-based physician who doubled as the county coroner.   His wife, Kay Sybers was 52 years old and overweight and had an unhealthy lifestyle.  When she died suddenly one morning in 1991, her lack of history of medical concerns was cause for an automatic autopsy anywhere in Florida.  But Sybers concluded that his wife had died of a heart attack, so he had decided against an autopsy, which he said was consistent with her wishes.  He reported that she had woken up at around 4:30 a.m. complaining of chest pains and stabbing pains radiating down her left arm.  One would think that Sybers should have called 911 to get his wife to a hospital for treatment of a possible heart attack.  Instead he said he had tried to draw blood from her.  However, he'd botched the job and had disposed of the syringe. 

A day later, Agent Scotty Anderson insisted on scheduling Kay Sybers' body for autopsy with the medical examiner's office in nearby Pensacola, Florida.At the place on her arm where the syringe had been inserted,examiners cut the right side away and took it for toxicology examinations so they could analyze it for substances.  They had a woman who was in her early 50s who had died unexpectedly with an autopsy that showed no anatomic reason for her sudden demise. 

However, a reliable toxicology examination proved difficult.  After deciding an autopsy was unnecessary, Bill Sybers had released his wife's body to a funeral home where it was embalmed, making it almost impossible to detect any hint of poison in the body's tissues.  The embalming preservative had often stymied the efforts of toxicologists.

Unsettled, Agent Sanderson worked the netherworld of office gossip.  Rumor placed Bill Sybers in an affair with a female technician at his lab.  Sybers had placed hundreds of calls over a period of a few weeks, all to this woman.  The last logged in at 6:36 A.M. on the day Kay Sybers had died. 

To re-examine the case, a brainstorming session was convened in 1997 with some of the brightest minds in forensic science.   A list of the best types of poison to use to kill someone quickly was created.  These experts had some key symptoms to work with, such as elevated levels of potassium.  Kay's preserved tissue samples were sent to the lab at National Medical Services in Pennsylvania. 

Dr. Frederic Reiders reviewed the case and considered the use of potassium chloride, the third and final drug used in executions by lethal injection.   In normal human blood, iron exists in a ratio of one to one with potassium. That ratio, Reiders believed, would remain unaffected by the introduction of embalming fluid, which contained neither potassium nor iron.  It followed that if potassium had been administered in addition to that which was already present, the ratio of potassium would have gone up while the iron remained the same.  He performed an analysis and in one of the specimens, the ratio was eight parts of potassium to one part of iron in the blood.  This indicated that potassium may have been introduced into the fluid. 

Investigators asked that the rest of Kay's body be exhumed.  The court, however, rejected the request, saying that Reiders' approach was as yet untested. The case threatened to go cold once again. 

Next on the list of possible poisons was succinlycholine.  As a murder weapon, it was thought to be practically perfect because it broke down quickly in the body.  Forensic toxicologist Kevin Ballard screened for the drug and he discovered succinlymoncholine, a byproduct of succinlycholine and a footprint of the poison's presence in Kay Sybers' body. 

This confirmation came just before the capital murder trial of Dr. Sybers, based thus far on circumstantial evidence, was set to begin.  Ballard went to testify.  He pointed out that according to pharmacology textbooks, succinlycholine and related drugs caused an increased release in potassium.  In fact, it was a common side effect of the drugs.  The drug paralyzed the muscles, including the diaphragm. The question became that if succinlycholine was so unstable, then how had Ballard found it after the body was embalmed and the organ sample sat on a shelf for eight years?  Ballard's answer went back to a decision that Dr. Sybers had made right after Kay had died--to immediately embalm her body.  The embalming process actually helped preserve succinlymoncholine and made it easier to detect. 

The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder as charged in the indictment.  He was given a sentence of 25 years, but an appeals court overturned the scientific evidence and granted him a new trial. According to the St. Petersburg Times, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that evidence from a key test indicating Sybers' wife was fatally drugged should not have been admitted at trial because it could not be duplicated. Florida evidence rules allow "novel scientific evidence" only when it is "sufficiently established to have gained general acceptance" in the field.

Judge Peter D. Webster wrote in the court's opinion, "We conclude that the state has failed to carry its burden of establishing by independent and impartial proof that the scientific principles underlying the testing . . . are generally accepted in the relevant scientific community."

* * * * *

Throughout the history of forensic toxicology, one thing stands out.   While scientists and the police have worked together to solve difficult cases, toxicologists have faced many challenges, and those challenges have led to improving and refining their methods.  However, courts do not always accept their newer methodologies.


* Special thanks to the research assistance of Jackie Lageman at DeSales University.


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