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Redoubtable N.Va. Medical Examiner James C. Beyer

James C. Beyer was deputy chief medical examiner in the Northern Virginia District for 28 years.
James C. Beyer was deputy chief medical examiner in the Northern Virginia District for 28 years. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 4, 2006

James C. Beyer, 87, who solved the mysteries of death through the thousands of autopsies he conducted as Northern Virginia's longtime medical examiner, died Feb. 25 of a blood disorder at Inova Fairfax Hospital. No autopsy was performed.

Taciturn, unflappable and with a gruff manner that sometimes intimidated lawyers and police officers, Dr. Beyer could be a formidable presence in the autopsy room or on the witness stand. After honing his expertise in gunshot wounds as an Army pathologist examining soldiers killed in battle, he worked as a medical examiner in Northern Virginia for more than 30 years. He spent the last 28 years of his career, until he retired at 80, as deputy chief medical examiner in the Northern Virginia District.

During that time, Dr. Beyer conducted more than 20,000 autopsies, often working seven days a week, and testified in hundreds of court cases, giving his matter-of-fact analyses of how people died.

"There was probably not a more dedicated individual in any field of endeavor," said Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert, who had known Dr. Beyer since the 1970s. "He was probably the most effective witness in his field that I've ever seen."

In 1993, Dr. Beyer conducted the autopsy of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. A special counsel later conducted an investigation that included DNA and laser tests, four lawyers, five doctors, seven FBI agents, 125 witnesses and a rash of conspiracy theories. That investigation reached the same conclusion Dr. Beyer had all along: Foster killed himself with a handgun.

Dr. Beyer was not a celebrity medical examiner who lent his expertise to high-profile cases across the country. Rather, he stayed in Northern Virginia and managed the mundane and sometimes grim business of a medical examiner's office, often with little help.

"He only took one week off when I worked with him, and that was shortly before he retired," said assistant chief medical examiner Frances P. Field, who worked with Dr. Beyer for 14 years. "His dedication was just remarkable."

He often performed more than 1,000 autopsies a year and testified in hundreds of murder cases.

"He was very professional, a man of few words," said Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. "He was very hard to cross-examine. He would just say, 'These are the facts.' He was almost placid."

Dr. Beyer wrote more than 35 articles and book chapters, including many derived from his battlefield training. Having examined hundreds of soldiers killed in action, he was one of the country's leading experts in bullet wounds and napalm injuries. As an Army pathologist, he suggested improvements to uniforms and equipment.

Years later, when he was working in Northern Virginia, he became an authority on sex-related deaths. With his longtime Northern Virginia colleague, William F. Enos, he wrote the chapter on sex crimes for the standard manual for medical examiners, "Medicolegal Investigation of Death."

"He had this absolute respect for his victims," said Jim Dooley, a retired Fairfax County homicide investigator who had known Dr. Beyer for 25 years. "You were not going to come into his office and make wisecracks. He devoted his life to death investigation and finding the truth."


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