Still Lips Still Whisper

Meet Dr. Michael Graham, the city medical examiner. He hears dead people.

"And we just don't do it."

Leisure goes out of his way to shield the dead and way out of his way to help out homeless veterans. He helped organize a program for homeless veterans that pays for a military funeral service at Jefferson Barracks.

So when Leisure takes his morning stroll back to the morgue desk to find out who's checked in, he's also looking for veterans. When he finds ones without money, and often without family, he makes the funeral arrangements. And when the day arrives for the body to leave, Leisure puts on a suit and tie and heads over to Jefferson Barracks.

Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.
Jennifer Silverberg
The main autopsy room in the medical examiner's office. Each bed has its own exhaust fan and drainage tray. The scales behind the bed weigh organs.

He's attended the funeral of every single penniless veteran who's ever been wheeled into the morgue.

The body waiting on the gurney for Dr. Phillip Burch was wearing a shirt stabbed full of holes and oozing blood. Black shoulder-length curls framed the face of a 16-year-old girl.

The girl's father, Zein Isa, pointed to a small cut on his finger and told the police that his rebellious teenager attacked him. There was a struggle and he killed her in self-defense.

But that's not what the body of Tina, as she was known to her friends, told Burch.

"I looked at the body and she had six trivial punctures inside of her left breast," Burch says. "And she had six very fatal injuries a lot closer around her solar plexus. A very tight area, I think within two and a half inches of each other.

"And I told the detectives, by looking at the body and listening to the story, she was not involved in a wild free-swinging fight.

"For whatever reason, she stood still while she was stabbed. Either she stood still of her own volition, or she was unconscious or someone was holding her," Burch says.

After this 1989 autopsy, Burch and the police discovered that Tina's death had been audiotaped by the FBI. The feds suspected that Zein Isa was a member of the Abu Nidal terrorist cell and his home had been bugged. The chilling tape recorded Tina Isa's death -- murdered by her parents Zein and Maria for dating an African-American boy and disgracing the family.

Zein was a small, sickly man, but his wife Maria was a big, strong woman. She pinned her daughter down on the floor of their South City apartment while Zein stabbed her.

"Mother, please help me," Tina pleads as her father starts cutting her flesh.

Her high-pitched screams rush out of her mouth as a knife blade is thrust into her chest.

The screams turn into moans.

Then silence.

But Tina's body told Burch much of the story before the tapes were ever played.

"This was very evil justice," Burch says, his eyes intense and unblinking.

As the deputy medical examiner and forensic pathologist on the case, Burch testified at their trials. Zein and Maria Isa were both convicted of first-degree murder. Zein Isa received the death penalty but died while in prison. Maria Isa received the death penalty, but the case was overturned. After a second trial, she received life without parole.

Burch has been with the office since 1985 and during the past 17 years, he's had intimate discussions with the bodies of people whose deaths have been fodder for front-page news.

A man, obsessed with a young woman who worked at the Tivoli Theater, broke into her apartment, tied her hands and feet together, wrapped duct tape around her head, then shot her. Burch carefully preserved the duct tape. Cutting it off in one piece, instead of unraveling the duct tape, he was able to preserve a single fingerprint, which matched her killer's hand.

Then there was the body of a man Burch X-rayed, finding a bullet deep inside the head. A little while later, the head was X-rayed again, but the bullet had moved.

"I couldn't figure out how the bullet moved," Burch says.

But when he cut off the top of the man's skull, he found the answer.

"The brain was gone and there were a mass of maggots in the skull."

The maggots had been pushing the bullet around.

Burch laments about the "casual way people are killed today," but he doesn't get emotionally involved with the people he examines. He doesn't form a close bond with the naked person stretched out before him on an autopsy table.

"Most of the people we see are people who die strangely," Burch says. "His or her life may be very warped.

"I don't relate to that kind of lifestyle and I don't relate to drug dealers," he says plainly, referring to the crime- and drug-related deaths.

He's also been around long enough to see a big change in forensic pathology, both in terms of science and attitudes.

On the science side, the biggest change has been advances in DNA testing. Once DNA became accepted by judges in the mid to late 1980s, the medical examiner has become an important part of the justice system.

And then there's the image.

Burch says that the medical examiner used to be portrayed in movies as "an overweight alcoholic has-been munching a donut over a body" -- a doctor who screwed up one too many times on live patients so now he's only allowed to work with dead ones.

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