US pathologist doubts American’s ‘suicide’ in Cebu jail
An American cameraman and filmmaker who died in December in a jail in Cebu suffered blunt-force trauma, and his body had markings inconsistent with the official account by the authorities that he hanged himself, a private US pathologist said.
The findings raised new questions about the death of Jesse Phinney.
Law enforcement officials there said they found the 42-year-old Boston native hanging in the bathroom of a detention facility where he was being held on Dec. 5, and declared it a suicide.
Phinney’s family, suspecting foul play and believing he was incapable of the alleged crimes that prompted his arrest, hired a Providence, Rhode Island-based forensic pathologist and a private investigations company to look into his death.
The pathologist, Dr. Elizabeth Laposata, told Reuters in a recent interview that an autopsy she performed in the United States found deep bruises on Phinney’s body, caused within three or four hours of his death, and an unexplained mark on his neck.
NBI upholds report
She said she believed the evidence indicated that Phinney did not take his own life.
“No medical examiner would be comfortable saying this is a suicidal hanging because there are all these unexplained things,” said Laposata, a former chief medical examiner for the state of Rhode Island who is now in private practice and regularly testifies at murder trials.
But the National Bureau of Investigation in Central Visayas (NBI-7) on Friday stood pat on its report that the American was found dead inside the restroom of his detention facility in December 2017.
NBI-7 Director Patricio Bernales maintained that Phinney committed suicide as revealed by an autopsy conducted by its medicolegal officer.
“It was really suicide but I can’t elaborate on it now because we are being investigated by different agencies,” Bernales told the Inquirer.
The Criminal Investigation and Detection Group in Central Visayas (CIDG-7) and the Commission on Human Rights in Central Visayas (CHR-7) are conducting separate investigations on Phinney’s death upon the instruction of their superiors in Manila.
The day before he was found dead, Phinney had been arrested on suspicion of violating human trafficking and child abuse laws, according to a report by the NBI seen by Reuters.
According to the report, the NBI began tracking Phinney after a December 2016 complaint by Cebu Vice Governor Agnes Magpale, who also cochairs a women’s protection group.
The report included affidavits from a mother and child who said Phinney sometimes had minors sleep at his home, took pictures of them and gave them gifts.
‘Asphyxia by hanging’
Magpale told Reuters in a text message that she referred Phinney to the NBI, which she said is standard procedure when her office is presented with allegations of human trafficking or other crimes.
“I was told NBI did surveillance work for some time. When NBI took over, they filed the case,” she said.
The NBI’s report said Phinney was found hanging by a belt and that an autopsy commissioned by the NBI determined the cause of death was “asphyxia by hanging.”
The report was sent to the US Embassy in Manila by Bernales, the NBI’s regional director in Cebu.
Supt. Royina Garma, the CIDG-7 director in Cebu, told Reuters that her superiors in Manila ordered her office to probe Phinney’s death.
She said they had sought all documents related to the case from the NBI in Cebu but had yet to receive them.
While acknowledging she had no proof, Phinney’s sister, Molly Phinney Baskette, told Reuters in a TV interview that she feared that a culture of “widespread extrajudicial killing” was a contributing factor in his death.
Phinney was a cinematographer on more than two dozen documentaries, TV series and reality shows on channels, including Discovery and History, according to the IMDb movie and TV information website. Most recently, he worked on National Geographic’s 2014-2016 series “Life Below Zero.”
He had been winding down his TV career and was looking to start a new one building off-the-grid housing for low-income people. He had recently settled in Cebu, which he often called “the happiest place on Earth,” his sister said.
“They said it was suicide. It was not suicide,” said Baskette, a minister at a church in Berkeley, California, adding that she believed her brother was innocent.
Laposata said she found two ligature marks on Phinney’s neck, one more than is typical in a suicide.
She also pointed to two distinct blood and fluid stains found on his T-shirt, whereas only one stain pattern would be expected in a suicidal hanging, dropped from the nose or mouth.
Laposata also pointed to a picture of Phinney when he was arrested that showed he was not wearing a belt.
The pathologist said the autopsy done in the Philippines immediately after Phinney’s death missed a hemorrhage on top of his head, as well as deep bruises on his back and shoulder consistent with blunt-force trauma.
Phinney’s family raised about $34,000 via a GoFundMe page to defray the costs for the second autopsy and to hire Insiders Corp, a Paris-based investigations firm now probing his death in the Philippines.
Pro bono case
The company is working the case pro bono, and plans to issue a public report of its findings in the coming weeks, said Insiders Corp spokesperson Grace Cameron.
CHR-7 Director Arvin Odron said Phinney’s brother had sent an email to CHR Chair Chito Gascon late last year, asking his office to conduct an investigation of the victim’s death.
“And even before there was an order for us to investigate, the CHR-7 already conducted a motu proprio investigation after learning about Phinney’s death through the media,” Odron said.
He said the CHR ought to investigate deaths under the custody of law enforcers.
“We want to find out whether there was a suicide or a foul play. And if there was a foul play, who did it,” Odron said. He said their investigator already talked to Dr. Rene Cam, NBI-7 medicolegal officer, who claimed that Phinney died of asphyxia due to hanging.
The Inquirer tried to contact Garma but she was not available as of Friday afternoon. —ADOR VINCENT S. MAYOL
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