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Medical Examiners Believe Higgins Dead Before Videotaped Hanging With PM-Hostages, Bjt

August 4, 1989 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Medical examiners who saw a videotape of the hanging of Lt. Col. William Higgins say they believe Higgins was dead before he was hanged.

Higgins, a U.S. Marine officer, had been held hostage in Lebanon since he was kidnapped Feb. 17, 1988. His captors said they hanged him Monday in retaliation for Israel’s kidnapping of a Shiite Moslem leader in Lebanon.

A tape of the hanging was sent to a news organization in Beirut and broadcast on American television.

″The impression from the video is that he might have been killed soon after he was captured,″ Dr. Michael Baden, director of forensic sciences for the New York State Police and former medical examiner in New York City, said Thursday.

Dr. Werner Spitz, professor of forensic pathology at Wayne State University and former medical examiner for Wayne County, which includes Detroit, said he concluded that Higgins had been dead at least several days and perhaps several weeks before the purported hanging.

″It clearly looked to me like the body was in what we call mummification, or early stages of mummification, which essentially means drying,″ Spitz said.

″Because of the drying certain areas become sunken like the eyes are sunken. If you look at the Higgins pictures, they certainly look that way. ... I’m inclined to think he was dead before he was hanged.″

Administration officials said they too had concluded that Higgins was dead before he was hanged.

″No one can say for sure, but there are many things there inconsistent with a man who has just been hanged,″ said one official who spoke on condition he not be named.

Another official argued that the body’s shoulders appeared rigid rather than slumped, as they should have on a man who died by hanging.

Dr. Fred Jordan, chief medical examiner for Oklahoma, said, ″I’ve seen a lot of hangings in my day, and I’ve not seen one in which the body was in such an erect position.″

He also noted that the rope mark on the neck seemed to be horizontal, while in cases of hanging it is almost always at an oblique angle, higher in the back of the neck than in the front. A horizontal mark is usually evidence of strangulation, not hanging, he said.

″I don’t think the man was hanged,″ he said.

He and the other medical examiners interviewed cautioned, however, that they could not make scientifically firm conclusions based on the brief portion of the videotape that they saw on television.

The only way to be certain that Higgins was hanged alive would be to recover the body and do an autopsy, the medical examiners said.

Some reports have said Higgins was killed soon after he was kidnapped in south Lebanon in February 1988, or in retaliation for the U.S. downing of an Iranian jetliner last December.

White House officials said the CIA told them that Higgins was probably killed before Monday, The New York Times reported. That conclusion was based on analysis of information from nations with contacts with the Party of God, a pro-Iranian group in Lebanon associated with the group that says it hanged Higgins.

Baden, author of a new book called ″Unnatural Death,″ that describes cases where death was made to look recent when it wasn’t, noted that Higgins was wearing heavy clothing inappropriate for summer in Lebanon. And his hair hadn’t grown.

″It looks like he still has a crewcut similar to what he had when he was kidnapped, and it’s unlikely, under the setting that these people are in, that that would be maintained. From other hostages we’ve seen, the hair is growing.

″These are the kinds of things a medical examiner would look at.″

Baden had no doubt that it was Higgins who was shown in the tape.