Dr. Sparks Veasey Ignites Interest in Criminal Justice

Adjunct Faculty Dr. Sparks Veasey is the Director of Forensic Services for Montgomery County.
Adjunct Faculty Dr. Sparks Veasey is the Director of Forensic Services for Montgomery County.

Dr. Sparks Veasey has been a medical examiner, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a flight surgeon and a medical investigator for military plane crashes.

But at Sam Houston State University, Dr. Veasey is perhaps best known as an adjunct faculty member and former full-time faculty member in the College of Criminal Justice. Since 2004, Veasey has taught courses such as basic criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensic science, and philosophy of courts to undergraduates and graduate students alike.

“I absolutely love teaching at the college level,” said Dr. Veasey. “There is nothing better than that.”

Dr. Veasey is currently the Director of Forensic Services for Montgomery County, where he oversees about 400 autopsies annually for four counties in Southeast Texas, including Montgomery, Walker, Madison and Grimes. His office performs autopsies on behalf of justices of the peace where the deaths are suspicious, unnatural, those where doctors cannot define a cause, those that occur outside the hospital, and those involving children under six.

Some of the tools used for autopsies.
Some of the tools used for autopsies.
Some cases involve only an external examination of the body and a review of medical records. Other suspicious cases can incorporate internal and external exams of the body and clothing, the collection of body fluids, toxicology tests, photographs of disease and injuries, sexual assault kits, DNA testing, radiography and microbiology. The results may end up in a call to police or county health officials, or to family member explaining the cause of death.

“Most of the autopsies are natural deaths,” said Dr. Veasey. “That’s the way we want it. We don’t want to be missing the homicides.”

Dr. Veasey has served in Montgomery County for 18 months, and he was previously the medical examiner for Galveston County while employed by the University of Texas Medical Branch. During his tenure, he has witnessed many interesting cases. Take the woman from New Mexico who drowned in her bathtub. While many deaths in the bathtub are attributed to drug overdose or seizure, this victim has ether in her system. Her husband was arrested for murder for anesthetizing her and placing her in the bathtub to drown. The case was featured on the New Detectives series on Discovery Channel.

Dr. Veasey also discovers many unusual items in and on the body of the deceased. Recently, he has seen an increase in overdose deaths from prescription drugs as well as abuse of bath salts. He is also able to detect communicable diseases, including meningitis, tuberculosis and rabies, and he notifies local health officials when they are present. In one case, he discovered rattlesnake poison, but he couldn’t find a lab that had an assay test for it.

“Part of our job relates to public health and public safety,” Dr. Veasey said.

Dr. Veasey uses a microscope to evaluate suspicious deaths for contagious diseases.
Dr. Veasey uses a microscope to evaluate suspicious deaths for contagious diseases.
The autopsy sometimes includes an x-ray of the body to try and detect the presence of bullet fragments or other metals. Recently he x-rayed a body from a house fire only to discover the victim was shot first.

There are many steps in the autopsy process, which provide clues to the cause of death. Once the case is referred from a Justice of the Peace Office, the autopsy begins with a thorough exam of the outside of the body, both with and without clothes. It notes any evidence of natural disease or injury and identifies evidence on the body, such as hairs and fibers. “It paints a verbal picture that constitutes the report,’ Dr. Veasey said.

Samples are collected from the body, including blood, vitreous fluid from the back of the eye and urine for potential toxicology tests for street drugs or prescriptions. Then each organ is removed and weighed and examined for disease or injury. Every step in the process is extensively photographed and documented.

Each organ is weighed.
Each organ is weighed.
In some cases, slides are created to provide a more in-depth look at organs or to produce cultures to look for communicable disease. Sexual assault kits are collected to examine for DNA. X-rays may be taken to search for bullets or other metal in the body.

All the information is carefully documented so that it can be used is court in criminal cases. Dr. Veasey is often called to testify in those cases.

Dr. Veasey hasn’t always been in the lab. During his time in the U.S. Air Force, he served as a flight surgeon and was assigned to a unit that went around the world investigating military plane crashes. “It helped to alter the way aircraft were built and the way flying was done in the military,” Veasey said.

While in his 40s, in what he calls “his mid-life crisis,” Dr. Veasey returned to South Texas School of Law to get a law degree. Armed with that diploma, Dr. Veasey worked as a prosecutor in Brazoria County and as a defense and civil attorney in Brazoria and Galveston counties. “It is something I always wanted to do,” said Dr. Veasey.

Dr. Veasey said his legal training has helped him be a better forensic scientist. He can better address the forensic pathology in the context of legal issues that may emerge in a courtroom setting, such as defining pain and suffering in a civil case.

Dr. Veasey said he has loved his long and varied career in criminal justice.

“If I were to die tomorrow, I’ve had opportunities that few people get,” said Dr. Veasey. “I grew up in East Texas, with no running water. I’ve had a Mom and Daddy who were very supportive. I have had some exciting times.”

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