Janie Ward's Third Autopsy Only Leads To More Questions On Hell And Gone

By Diana Brown

September 6, 2019

Evidence bag, Police scientific laboratory, conceptual image, horizontal composition

In 1989, 16-year-old Janie Ward fell off a porch at a party and died. But there seemed to be more to the story, at least to her father, Ron Ward, who noticed that her clothes were wet and covered with sand, and she arrived at the Arkansas State Crime Lab wearing a different shirt. His investigation into his daughter’s death only led to more questions: why did the kids at the party put Janie put in the back of a truck and take her to a bank parking lot, instead of to the ambulance service or the hospital? Why was the back of the truck filled with water? Who changed her clothes, and why? Rumors of a fight between Janie and another student led to conspiracy theories involving everyone from teenaged cheerleaders to respected judges to then-governor Bill Clinton. The forensic pathologist who originally examined Janie’s body resigned soon after over allegations of botching several autopsies - did he botch Janie’s, as well? Her family had her body exhumed for a second pathologist to examine her, just in case. His conclusion? Janie had been murdered by blunt force trauma to the face. But in 2007, as investigator and author Catherine Townsend tells us, a third autopsy was done, and ended with completely different conclusions than the first two. The mystery around Janie’s death deepens, and the questions keep coming, on this episode of Hell and Gone

After the Wards got the second autopsy done by Dr. Burnell that said Janie had been murdered, her case was reopened under special prosecutor Tim Williamson. “Three years and over $10,000 later, Tim Williamson said he did not find any conclusive evidence that Janie's death was a homicide. In the end, he can't determine anything. So in August of 2007, they exhume Janie's body one more time for a final autopsy,” Catherine says. Tim knows how distrustful the Wards have become regarding any officials in Arkansas, so he “finds an out of state pathologist to perform the autopsy. He wants someone whose credentials are impeccable, someone who is not controversial. Someone who can help him convince the Ward family and the rest of the state that he's being completely impartial.” That pathologist was named Dr. John Pless. His team did a CT scan of Janie’s body, so they could see a 3D rendering of her entire skeleton. “Then, they brought the body to the Arkansas Crime Lab where every part of the body was dissected,” Catherine says. His findings didn’t point to a fall off a porch or a beating to the face; instead he tells the Wards, “my opinion is that at some point or another, just prior to her collapse, she got something caught in her throat, couldn't breathe, couldn't talk and as the oxygen level was reduced, she finally collapsed.” He also says there’s no evidence at all of a spinal injury. 

This baffles the Wards; choking had never been one of the theories put forward by anyone involved so far. “He also suggests that Janie could have had a heart arrhythmia,” Catherine says, another new theory, but while Janie’s other organs had been put into a bag inside her abdomen after her first two autopsies, “Dr. Pless couldn't make an official diagnosis because Janie's heart was missing.” They also have photos from her first autopsy, showing that her spine was severed. How could there be no evidence of a spinal injury? Dr. Pless’s opinion is that Dr. Fahmy Malak, the first pathologist, must have torn or cut it during his examination.

Radiologist checking an x-ray image

This third autopsy doesn’t seem to answer any questions at all. The Wards now have three autopsies that tell them three completely different things about the manner of their daughter’s death, and it only causes their distrust to grow. They aren’t the only ones; journalist Mike Masterson, who’s written a series of 200 articles about Janie’s death, isn’t buying it either. “Supposedly, they just absolutely skinned her; there's nothing left if they wanted to another autopsy, and that was not necessary but they did it. So they made sure there wasn't going to be a fourth exhumation.” He’s also not sure why Dr. Malak would have cut or torn Janie’s spine. “It's just all a bunch of words, it's dissembling is what it is. It's words to try to fill air and try to confuse people. I mean, it didn't confuse me at all and it didn't confuse most of Arkansas.” 

Join Catherine as she sits down with other pathologists and experts to discuss what circumstances could have caused three such different conclusions, trying to find the answers the Wards have searched for so desperately for thirty years, on this episode of Hell and Gone 

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