Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Unassuming, devoted medical examiner among fixtures in Smith case


Associated Press Writer

DANIA BEACH, Fla. — Tearful judges came and went. Lawyers have ended their representation. One of the only constant faces throughout the Anna Nicole Smith saga has been the kindly medical examiner with a thick Romanian accent and a devotion to determining what killed the starlet.

Dr. Joshua Perper was thrust into the spotlight like never before when the pinup died in his county. He has been a fixture in exhaustive media coverage of the story, opening his office to reporters and submitting himself to relentless questioning.

He gave so many interviews he said it felt like he had a second job.

"I and my office do not seek publicity, for sure, and don't run away from publicity," he said in an interview in his office. "I believe the medical examiner has a responsibility of explaining to the public why he or she makes certain decisions."

Smith's image — her sometimes slurred speech, her fluctuating weight, her over-the-top antics — made the model and reality TV star an easy target in her life. But Perper said he approaches all cases with dignity for the dead and their family.

He said each case teaches him something, too, though he said he tries not to get emotionally involved in his work.

"You cannot run away from your person. You are your person all the time, but I don't think it affects us emotionally, because what we are dealing with is a medical person and every death is a medical person," he said. "The human mind is always stimulated when there's a problem, so you want to find out what's the truth."

Perper is a 74-year-old widower who was born in Bacau, Romania, schooled largely in Israel, and has been at the helm of the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office since 1994. He beams when he talks about his three children and seven grandchildren, he sometimes inserts wry asides into otherwise staid discussions, his office shelves are not only filled with medical texts, but audiobooks by authors as varied as Bill Clinton, John Grisham and Jack Kerouac.

The medical examiner not only has a medical degree and one in forensic pathology, but also a law degree. Before coming to Florida, he spent a dozen years working in the coroner's office in Allegheny County, Pa. He has taught extensively, received numerous awards, testified on Capitol Hill and written for many journals and books.

Smith's case is not the first high-profile one to come before him. In 2003, he found the diet supplement ephedra contributed to the heatstroke that killed Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Eight years earlier, he determined that 17-year-old model Kristen Taylor's asthma death may have been aggravated by her use of an over-the-counter inhaler.

Nothing, though, has compared to this. It was evident by the hordes of media who encircled Perper on Monday, as he stood behind a podium on two cinder blocks to announce Smith died of an accidental drug overdose.

For all the hours he has devoted to the Smith case in the last six-plus weeks, Perper said the demands for his time weren't too great.

"This kind of stress I can handle," he said. "I do not need to decompress. I'm not compressed. In other words, if I decompress, I'm going to deflate."

Perper has continued his work on all manner of other cases as the world has watched him give word on the Smith case. He has no plans for time off.

"Life goes on," he said. "This was just a blip."

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