Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cyril Wecht: Forensic Pathologist

Accident or Murder?

On June 2, 1976, Dr. Stephen Scher went out hunting with his good friend, lawyer Martin Dillon from Montrose, Pennsylvania. Only Scher returned that day, claiming Dillon was dead. And he had a story to tell.

Dr. Stephen Scher
Dr. Stephen Scher

The two men had been walking to get cigarettes, he said, when Dillon spotted a porcupine, grabbed Scher's Winchester16-gauge pump-action shotgun, and ran off after the animal. Scher heard a shot and went to find Dillon, who lay atop the gun. Upon turning him over, he discovered a gaping chest wound. Dillon's shoe lacings were undone, so Scher surmised he'd stepped on one and tripped. Scher had been so overcome, he later said, that he'd smashed the gun against a tree.

Since the two men had been friends, the death was quickly declared accidental, without any investigation, and closed.

But Martin Dillon's father, Lawrence Dillon, was not satisfied, especially with rumors in town that Scher was carrying on with Dillon's wife. Indeed, two years later, these two were married and had moved out of state. But Dillon's father did not give up.

In 1992, he hired a private detective to review the evidence. It turned out that there was blood spatter on Scher's clothing, along with a piece of flesh pierced by fibers on his pants---evidence that he had been standing closer to Dillon than he'd admitted. Dr. Isadore Mihalakis, a local coroner and forensic pathologist, agreed to re-examine the case. From some of the photos and items of evidence, he thought there was good evidence for a case to be made for murder, so he ordered an exhumation so that they could measure Dillon's arms to see if it was even possible for him to have shot himself with this weapon.

Dillon's remains were exhumed in 1995 and experiments carried out with similar weapons contradicted Scher's original story, so he was arrested. At his trial, the scenario suggested by the wound and blood spatter evidence was that Dillon had been crouching with a clay pigeon in his hand, readying the skeet machine, when Scher had shot him. The size of the round, designed for hunting not skeet-shooting, indicated premeditation.

The defense, too, had ordered an exhumation, and Dr. Wecht was among those who analyzed the evidence.

"It's a wonderful case," he says. "I'm amazed that a movie hasn't yet been made about it. It's got sex, it's got romance, it's got adultery, it's got intrigue and it's got the 'whodunit?' angle.

"I was one of the defense experts, with Dr. Michael Baden and John Shane, a local pathologist; we did the exhumation and autopsy. That would have been the second exhumation, the third autopsy. The prosecution team had spirited the body out and reburied it without letting the attorney know. So it had to be exhumed the second time. All three of us testified in that case. I thought from the very beginning that Scher's story was not valid. What I did believe was the second version, which regrettably came out during the course of the trial. But at that point who the hell is going to believe him?"

Stephen Scher in cuffs with sheriff
Stephen Scher in cuffs with sheriff

Confronted with the prosecution's evidence, Scher changed his story and confessed that he had shot Dillon, but insisted it had been accidental as they argued and then fought over the gun. However, Dillon was wearing earplugs when found, so Scher had had a "conversation that led to an argument" with a man who couldn't have heard him.

Scher was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. After an appeal, the conviction was upheld in 2000.

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