Dr. Robert Huntington III, unique explainer of death, dies at 77

Robert Huntington, unique explainer of death, dies at 77

Dr. Robert W. Huntington III, a forensic pathologist whose wit, theatricality and lack of pretension brought life to the grimmest of subjects, died Sunday at his home near Mazomanie, where he and his wife raised goats.

He was 77.

For years, as an associate professor of pathology at UW-Madison, the white-bearded (no mustache) Huntington was the go-to man for autopsies for many counties in Wisconsin, including Dane County, that had elected coroners instead of licensed medical examiners.

But it was in the courtroom, on the witness stand, where Huntington became known for giving succinct, unflinching testimony and trading jabs with defense lawyers who thought they knew better.

“You had to be really careful to tangle with him or he would make you look stupid,” said longtime Assistant State Public Defender Dennis Burke. “You didn’t want to take him on unless you were sure of yourself.”

His testimony was the key point of many murder trials in Dane County, said Robert Kaiser, a former assistant district attorney who is now a state assistant attorney general.

“Those who knew him knew that his description of the way that a person died was going to be unique,” Kaiser said. “But he got his point across.”

In one case, Kaiser said, the 1992 murder trial of a couple later convicted of killing their infant son, Huntington was accused on cross examination by a defense attorney of not having said exactly how the baby died.

Kaiser recalled: “Huntington leaned over and said, ‘Counselor, what part of ‘the baby was beaten to death’ don’t you understand?’”

In a 1998 State Journal profile, Huntington said his odd sense of humor kept him sane while he performed what he said were about 200 autopsies per year.

“If you see me laughing, I’m just laughing to keep from crying,” Huntington said, quoting a song.

He also said that his job was to explain what caused a person to die. “It is the cases without real closure that tend to nag, nag and drag,” he said. “Even if it is a tragedy, and it often is, leaving it unexplained doesn’t improve anything.”

Huntington was educated at Harvard, and got his medical degree at the University of Rochester in New York. He came to UW-Madison for an anatomic pathology residency in 1971 and never left. He retired in 2002 but worked part time until 2009.

“He taught many generations of residents (including me) and was well respected in his forensic sub-specialty, as a general pathologist and as a humanist,” Dr. Andreas Friedl, pathology department chairman, wrote in a statement Tuesday.

Funeral arrangements were pending at Hooverson Funeral Home. WSJ