- Associated Press - Monday, June 2, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A pathologist who worked as an assistant Alaska medical examiner has been named the state’s chief medical examiner.

Gary Zientek has worked for the Alaska Division of Public Health since 2009. Gov. Sean Parnell approved his promotion earlier this year.

Zientek’s medical license was suspended for four years in Virginia because of alcohol and drug abuse, the Anchorage Daily News reported (https://is.gd/983slM). Zientek was convicted on felony drug charges that were later reduced to misdemeanors.

Zientek’s Virginia license was restored with restrictions in late 2007. A Virginia state court judge had said Zientek’s role as a medical examiner in a 2008 autopsy impeded prosecutors’ ability to seek the death penalty in the killing of a 12-year-old girl.

Zientek said he has been sober for 10 years. He said his is a story of redemption.

“I hit very low bottom,” he said. “With a lot of work and a lot of help from other people, I’ve put my life back on track and become successful again.”

According to the order that suspended his Virginia license, Zientek began prescribing himself Tylenol with codeine in 1989 while practicing pathology in Richmond, Virginia. That state’s board of medicine found Zientek was using up to 15 pills a day, combined with as many as eight alcoholic drinks and over-the-counter Nyquil.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said Zientek was fully vetted to head the office earlier this year.

“Dr. Zientek has been open about his past,” Leighow said. “He has served as Alaska’s deputy medical examiner and is highly qualified for the position.”

According to the Department of Administration, Zientek was the only person interviewed for the job, which pays about $225,000 a year.

Zientek moved to Alaska in 2009, obtaining a medical license from the state medical board and submitting to five years of probation for chemical dependency. His medical license is no longer restricted.

Retired Anchorage Superior Court judge Elaine Andrews said Zientek’s past could be fair game for defense attorneys to undermine his findings.

“Both the prosecution and defense would need to be prepared to address these arguments to the trial judge,” she said.

Zientek’s background is widely known among defense attorneys in Alaska, according to public defender Doug Moody. He said it has not appeared to hurt Zientek’s credibility with juries, given that the admitted drug use occurred more than 10 years ago.

“If it’s not being brought up now, I assume it’s because trial attorneys have concluded there is no mileage to be gained from it,” Moody said.

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