A former medical examiner was sentenced today to life in prison without parole for at least 25 years for killing his first wife with a lethal injection almost 10 years ago.
The jury that last month convicted Dr. William Sybers, 68, of first-degree murder recommended the sentence, which the judge said he had little choice but to follow. The only other sentence possible was death by lethal injection.
Sybers declined to make a statement before sentencing and showed no emotion when it was announced. His present wife, Judy, cried softly in the second row of the audience.
Circuit Judge Don T. Sirmons said by law a life recommendation must be followed unless no reasonable person could agree with it.
After pronouncing the sentence, Sirmons told Sybers, "Good luck to you."
Sirmons denied a request by new defense lawyers, who also will handle Sybers' appeal, to delay the sentencing. His prior defense team had announced plans for an appeal immediately after Sybers was found guilty.
'Well-Financed' Defense … And Appeal
A jury in Pensacola, where the trial was moved because of extensive publicity in Bay County, convicted Sybers of killing his first wife, Kay, 52, with a paralyzing drug on May 30, 1991, at their home in nearby Panama City Beach.
Sybers, then the district medical examiner, ordered no autopsy, saying he was carrying out his wife's wishes. He reversed himself the next day when a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent questioned him, but the body had been embalmed and the autopsy was inconclusive.
State Attorney Harry Shorstein, a governor-appointed special prosecutor from Jacksonville, considers the decade-long investigation and prosecution to be perhaps the most difficult in Florida's history.
"This case had every possible obstacle between the murder and conviction," Shorstein said when the jury made its sentencing recommendation. "This was an unbelievably well-financed defense."
Sybers' family has acknowledged spending more than $2 million on the case. Five new attorneys, including Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who was part of O.J. Simpson's legal team, have been hired for the appeal.
The new legal team is headed by Dershowitz's brother, Nathan Dershowitz, who argued for a delay in sentencing partly so he and his colleagues, hired last week, could familiarize themselves with the case.
The Nearly Perfect Murder
Although Sirmons denied that request he allowed Sybers to remain in the Bay County Jail at least 30 more days until a hearing can be held on requests by the state and county that Sybers be required to pay about $500,000 for the 10-year investigation and prosecution.
The judge also ordered that a $300,000 bond Sybers posted to obtain bail prior to his conviction be held pending a decision on the costs.
The now-retired pathologist was "only a phone call away from a perfect murder," Shorstein said.
A former colleague, Dr. Terrence Steiner, had called the FDLE after learning about the no-autopsy order, setting off an investigation that bogged down for years.
Authorities were unable to identify a poison and family members of Kay Sybers, who supported her husband, helped get a court ruling that blocked exhumation of her body from a Fort Dodge, Iowa, cemetery for more testing.
Technological and Legal Break
A breakthrough came in late 1999 when National Medical Services, a Willow Grove, Pa., laboratory used a new technique to find evidence of the drug, succinylcholine, in organs retained from the autopsy.
Scientists said the embalming had preserved a chemical formed during the drug's rapid breakdown in the body.
Sybers admitted to investigators he caused two needle marks on his wife's arm but said she was having chest pains so he tried to take a blood sample. Sybers told them he botched the job and threw the syringe away. It was never found.
Shorstein told the jury Sybers killed his wife so he could be with his mistress, Judy Ray, and avoid a divorce that would have cost him half of joint assets worth about $6 million. Sybers and Ray wed in 1994 and lived in Canada.
In 1993, one of Sybers' two sons, Timothy, 27, fatally shot himself at the family's vacation home in Sister Bay, Wis., while on the telephone with his girlfriend. He told her he could not go on living knowing his father had killed his mother, police said. He and his younger sister had found their mother's body on the day she died.